The Screwtape Letters

Mon 22nd – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Pat Massey

at 11:10 on 25th Aug 2011

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“'Yes Minister' in space” indicates not only the vibe of 'The Screwtape Letters', but also its quality. The Saltmine Theatre Company is a professional outfit, having presented this C. S. Lewis play several times since 1993, and it truly shows.

For starters, the cast makes theology lectures fun. You wouldn't expect it of the man who brought us the saccharine world of Narnia but Lewis puts Christianity through the wringer, highlighting how excessive religious fervour and the idea of equality can bring one closer to Hell. You have to be alert- the woman in front of me asked me whether the first act made sense to a non-Christian- but Saltmine make it so entertaining it doesn't feel like learning. The script excels elsewhere, displaying a sense of humour which makes up for occasional groaners ('interred/inferred', anyone?) with real wit. To quote Jade Bonetta's useless Slubgob: “My supervisor's nickname for me is Snowball”.

I'll take a moment here to praise the script further for its inventiveness, from the frivolous rewriting of a familiar hymn to the subversively early climax of what appears to be a stock romance. Lewis made Hell entertaining, but never forgot the ruthlessness underpinning it.

Regarding the cast, I must admit Becky Townsend's delivery of various roles- her unnatural inflections and emphases- jarred with me. However, more than redressing the balance is the memory of David Robinson's teacherly Screwtape rattling through thesauruses of abuse; the marriage of Michael Taylor's vocal inventiveness to his prim countenance; and Matthew Sunners as the convert turned devils' bête noire. Perhaps most impressive of all, Sunners makes a thankless Ordinary Guy role likeable, even complex. You can empathise with this struggling new convert even if, like me, you're a de facto atheist. Unlike the pretty boys who usually play this type of role, you could imagine Sunners' Subject actually selling fruit in the Royal Mile.

Lewis turned the battle between Heaven and Hell into a game of tactics; a softly-softly scenario where war is, in fact, a disadvantage to Hell- another novel idea, right? It's refreshing to see such a civilised Hell, set in a library as opposed to the usual abyss of smoke and fire. Indeed, this is an impressive set for a Fringe production- no blackcloth wings here. Moreover, the battle for the Subject's soul wages concurrently with another 'human' war, whose reveal brings an inevitability into proceedings which affords a wealth of pathos. The cast taps into it with style, but headed perhaps by Robinson's Screwtape. When he tells the audience “We will find the secret of the Enemy” you almost want to clap him on the back. For rest assured, despite the Dickensian names this is tragic stuff: a work-out for the heart as much as the brain.

So here's a surprise: I loved it. Perhaps my co-reviewer will have been less gripped by paroxysms of delight, but I guess I'm a sucker for Hell, for Lewis' ideas and for the way Saltmine has adapted them. And there's something about seeing this play in a church at nightfall...

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Alexandra Sayers

at 12:06 on 25th Aug 2011

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The choice to stage ‘The Screwtape Letters’ in a church seemed daring and humorously ironic, seeing as the show is based around CS Lewis’s creation of an arch-devil-tempter who damns his human ‘subjects’. This continued in director Michael Taylor’s decision to make Screwtape’s hell seem as close to earth as possible: Screwtape’s office is fashioned as a professor’s work station; he wears an academic robe and has pupils who attend his ‘tutorials’; so far, so human. This mutability between hell and earth continues in one of the best scenes, in which Screwtape ‘becomes’ a priest: an eery transformation that seems to focus the play in a way which does not define a separate hell and earth; but rather a hell on earth, which is far more dramatically effective. The only way that hell can be differentiated is through the subversive language the devils use: Screwtape instructs his pupil Wormwood that ‘We turn every virtue into a vice’, a clear indication that these aims are contradictory to our own. These subversions get the most laughs from the audience, perhaps the funniest being Screwtape’s un-pleasantry, ‘make yourself uncomfortable’. Indeed, this phrase extends to the audience as well: we are included in his ‘college’, we are seen as fellow devils. This strong inclusion worked well; particularly in the context of the space, in which the audience played the part of a perverted congregation.

This audience inclusion, however, lost its effectiveness when it was prolonged. Screwtape attempted in his beginning speech to include individual members of his audience in his personal accounts, pointing at an ‘idle man’ and ‘two ladies with buns in their hair’, but it didn’t quite work: it seemed too contrived to work naturally, and the audience response was mediocre. This brought on my real problem with the production, which was the lack of sufficient character density. It was a fairly long show - two and a quarter hours including an interval - and so I expected a lot of depth. In actuality, there was hardly any. I never felt sufficient sympathy for Screwtape in his downfall: unlike Marlowe’s Faustus (which is mentioned in the production), there was no pity for this falling creature, no empathy stirred up. And so, the protracted grief-speech by Screwtape that ends the show drags on in an already too-lengthly production. It was a shame that the play ended on this low, as the first half seemed to promise a gripping denouement, especially through the brilliant co-ordination of sound, lighting and movement seen in Slubgob’s destruction (spot-on timing that made for enjoyable viewing). Yet the second half didn’t ever really pick up from this first-half high, and so the show ended rather predictably and un-excitingly. On the whole an interesting theological premise and a great set design that is let down by anemic character development.

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