Trying to find something innovative for the Christmas season, London’s Park Theatre, has invoked the Devil for inspiration – or at least his underling.
CS Lewis is probably better known as the writer of the Narnia series for children but, hiding among his literary canon, is The Screwtape Letters, his 1940s classic novel which turns religion and faith on its head in a satire exposing the frailties of humanity.
American Max McLean adapted the book for the stage and it was a huge hit in the USA where critics called it wickedly witty.
All I can say is that perhaps something has been lost in the translation because I, and the opening night audience, barely raised a titter. It may have been witty on paper but its devilish humour fails to materialise on stage.
The problem with the production is that for 80 minutes (no interval) we have McLean, delivering, in an English accent, a virtual monologue with very little added performance and – to be frank – I’d had enough after about 10 minutes.
He is trying so hard to “play English” that his voice loses all modulation and emphasis, robbing the author’s words of their subtle wit and irony.
McLean directs and stars as Satan’s senior tempter, Screwtape (seemingly pronounced Screeew-TaPe! ). He stands before the audience, elegantly dressed in an elaborate brocade smoking jacket, and dictates letters – and that’s pretty much it…
They’re taken down by his unholy familiar, Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight), who occasionally utters a few words of gibberish, before the letters are sent up a pipe to his nephew Wormwood.
This antique mode of delivering post, much fancied in ancient department stores, is interesting for one or two letters before becoming irritating.
Here on Earth Wormwood is working hard to earn his stripes and send humanity to eternal damnation. Through a series of missives, Screwtape instructs Wormwood on how to achieve success, targeting man’s weaknesses, and he offers his own observations on our shortcomings.
CS Lewis, an Oxford don who was once an atheist and later a theologian, wrote this Christian apologetic novel to offer his own ideas on theological issues concerning temptation, as seen from the Devil’s point of view.
And Cameron Anderson’s demonic set, a wall adorned with the skulls and bones of the damned, doesn’t let us forget that we’re now in Hell. But, by God, if Screwtape is a representative of its administration, well, Hell looks terribly dull.
The Screwtape Letters runs at Park200 until January 7.
CS Lewis’ Christian apologetic satiric novel, The Screwtape Letters, makes hellishly dull watching in this stage adaptation by its director and star Max McLean.