The Screwtape Letters

C S Lewis, adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske
Fellowship for Performing Arts in Association with Park Theatre
Park Theatre (200)

Screwtape (Max Mclean) Credit: Fellowship for Performing Arts
Screwtape (Max Mclean) and his assistant Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight) Credit: Fellowship for Performing Arts
Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight) Credit: Fellowship for Performing Arts

The Screwtape letters by C S Lewis imagines a minor bureaucrat in the Devil’s hierarchy, Screwtape (Max Mclean), writing to his nephew Wormwood a junior tempter tasked with winning a human 'patient' to the Devil’s cause.

Initially amiable and slightly pompous, Screwtape becomes increasingly exasperated with the approach of Wormwood who seems to prefer grand events such as a war to win converts rather than Screwtape’s preferred long game. "...the safest road to Hell is the gradual one" says Screwtape.

Each letter lightly ponders topics such as pride, love, and sexual attraction. They have an eye for humour and Lewis is not beyond mischievously mocking the Christian Church. But then these are the words of a demon.

Each letter would make entertaining reading or even a pleasant mini sermon for many people. What the letters are not is good drama and that is not for the lack of effort on the part of the company.

There is a striking set bathed in red light. A back wall composed of a mass of bones and skulls dominates the stage from which emerges a twisting metal ladder rising into the roof. Midway is a metal box where the letters are posted.

The costumes are distinctive and you could spend time simply admiring them. The music is enjoyable and the two actors give impressive performances. If only they had a dramatic text to work with. They don’t.

The problem would be the same if we were faced with eating thirty cakes or had to listen to seventy-three minutes of the funniest thirty quotes from Oscar Wilde. It is just too much of the same thing and there is no real story or character development to carry us along.

This brings me to an odd contradiction of the event. It consists of letters which in themselves make small accessible points about everyday life. They reflect some of Lewis’s liberal conservative views and rarely dig very deeply into psychology or theology. That way, they easily connect to his readers and provide talking points.

However, lashing them together in a seventy-three-minute sitting, they seem difficult, inaccessible and very complex. Audiences will find it hard to concentrate for more than about ten or fifteen minutes and, as for providing a talking point, only the people who had a prior familiarity will be able to seriously recall much of what they heard.

It’s not helped by the fact that the subject matter is both remote and a bit difficult to disagree with. Yes, married couples quarrel, wars make some people more religious and too much pride can be bad for you. The company know this so they even try to pep it up at one point by having Screwtape take a shot at Madonna by waving a copy of her book as he describes the way biographies can lead you astray.

Of course, if we are looking for the modern demons who have led the world astray on a massive scale then some people might suggest we would be better checking out the oil, drug and banking companies that are listed as helping finance this show.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna