(The Bakehouse Theatre, Adelaide, 21 April 2017) (Dir. & adapted by Hailey McQueen)
The Varnished Culture has long been a fan of this brilliant little tract by C. S. Lewis. In this local staging by ‘Clock & Spiel Productions,’ Screwtape’s letters of instruction are adapted to a two-hander where we see the missives delivered by Screwtape’s assistant, Toadpipe. These include such gems as “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression,” “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out” and “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Yannick Lawry plays the eponymous didactic demon with relish but not much nuance. His role is fairly static but he managed to savour his dictation as a senior fiend might. He delivers C.S. Lewis’ polished epigrams cleanly and clearly and looks the part in his faux-Victorian study in Hell (a minor triumph of art direction, with the stage bordered in black ashes and a dark cloudy sky projected behind). George Zhao is very physical and amusing as Toadpipe, writing and delivering messages, play-acting the various targets of junior-tempter Wormwood, who, unseen, sends his regular reports on ‘progress’ with a loud bang.
It is an intriguing idea to stage this work and much of it was done well, but it works better as a book than a piece of theatre. For one thing, it is epistolary and this gives the play an administrative, repetitive ring, sometimes enlivened by Toadpipe’s antics (sometimes not). The whimsical tune that presaged a variation of scene or imminent message began to pall after an hour. The Varnished Culture held an earnest debate after the show in which we struggled to identify how it might be improved – perhaps add a worldly character or two? Add some context with a back story? but concluded that such devices would have reduced the rhythm of the piece. In the end, its defects were those of the medium but The Screwtape Letters was still worth doing, and seeing.