On a rare child free afternoon, I along with my husband Greg and our friends Julia and Callum went to see The Screwtape Letters, a 90 minute one act play based on a condensed version of the original satirical novel of the same name by CS Lewis during the early years of WWII. The Screwtape Letters, the novel, is made up of a series of letters composed by Screwtape, a senior demon in Hell’s “Lowerarchy” to his nephew Wormwood, a junior operative (or ‘Temptor’) working topside to bedevil and ensnare an unsuspecting human, known only as ‘the Patient’. Think devils and angels on your shoulders, but there is something to Lewis’ writing which, as presented on stage, draws the audience in and merits not just a little introspection, but, perhaps appropriately, some soul-searching.
The Screwtape Letters, as a play, brings to life in a two-man performance, the quotidian interactions of Screwtape (Yannick Lawry) and his demonic secretary and scribe (not to mention comedic sidekick) Toadpipe (George Zhao). As the novel upon which the play was based itself contains only correspondence from the avuncular Screwtape to his apprentice temptor, there is a simplicity and almost minimalism to the action in the play, and certainly to the set design. The play is set, and does not deviate from, Screwtape’s infernal office (replete with dark period furniture of the 1940s). The challenge for executing a play of this kind was to create interest and difference between each letter, which involves Screwtape receiving a black letter inside a black envelope mysteriously appearing at different hidden locations on the small set throughout the play) before dictating his reply to his nephew (with the familiar opening ‘My dear Wormwood’) which is studiously recorded on a note-pad by the hunch-backed Toadpipe before the latter ceremoniously removes the note page from the pad, screws it into a little ball, and sends the projectile (each time in a different manner) from the stage and out into the abyss.
The letters dictated by Screwtape, providing advice to the young tempter, cover the frailty of the human condition and thoughts as to how the Patient might be captured in his daily comings and goings, in order that his soul may be feasted upon by those who live below. As Screwtape tells Wormwood “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
In particular, Screwtape argues that the softly softly approach will have the best success, “murder is no better than TV if TV can do the trick”. In the same vein why encourage someone to commit adultery if you can turn a loving marriage into mutual loathing and the sin of Pride can be encouraged under the guise of humility.
Despite having been written more than 70 years go, there is nothing outdated about The Screwtape Letters. When one considers how far religion, morality and ethics has travelled since 1942, it is startling that CS Lewis can speak to an audience in 2016 like nothing’s happened in between. Throughout the play, it was impossible not to reflect on one’s own behaviours, and ponder whether there wasn’t a little devil leading us down the path to eternal damnation!
As always the sign of a good play is that you are still talking about particular moments and what it all means hours after the final curtain call.
The Screwtape Letters is playing at the Seymour Centre until 10 December 2016.