Skip to content



Reviews

Screwtape On Stage

Screwtape On Stage. . Adapted and directed for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean, presented by Fellowship for the Performing Arts. Performance at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performing Arts Center, January 21, 2012.

Learn More

Reviewed by David Bratman


[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:2 (#355) in February 2012.]

This two-actor stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters is produced by a Christian theater group and was brought to my attention by the C.S. Lewis Society of Northern California. It was first performed in New York in 2006, and is currently touring the U.S. Dates, locations, and ticket reservation links may be found at www.screwtapeonstage.com.

The text of the adaptation is based almost entirely strictly on Lewis’s words. It condenses the book into a 90-minute show by selecting, and to an extent rearranging, key sentences out of the letters and from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” The latter of these is presented as a prologue, delivered from a lectern. After this, Screwtape retires to his study, equipped with a comfy leather chair, to dictate his successive letters on the philosophy and practice of damnation addressed to the unfortunate junior tempter Wormwood.

This inherently undramatic scenario is rendered more theatrically palatable by the histrionics of the actors and a certain amount of stage distraction. The letters are sent, and those of the unseen Wormwood fetched back, via an industrial-revolution-style pneumatic tube, positioned high above the stage and pointed straight up. Assisted by the harsh lighting and sound, this makes a nice visual indication of how far down below our scene is located. It seemed to me that the condensation is coherent and conveys the intent of the book, but then I already know the book pretty well, so I could be mentally filling in gaps. (In a Q&A after the show, the actors asked for a show of hands, finding that about a third of the audience had never finished the book and some ten per cent hadn’t read it at all.)

Suave in a smoking jacket, Screwtape is played by the saturninely-bearded Max McLean (best known as an audio narrator of Christian books) in the vocal style of a slightly tipsy schoolmaster, with highly inflected mannerisms designed to punctuate the text and deliver the oomph behind Lewis’s satire. This isn’t a bureaucratic Screwtape, but a pedagogical one. He’s more crafty than he is outright demonic — Screwtape’s craving of Wormwood’s soul is underplayed, a bit surprisingly in comparison to the rest — but he is less pedantic than John Cleese’s audio tape of the book. I particularly enjoyed the way McLean has Screwtape speak his own name for the closing salutation of each letter: something like “Screue – taPe,” with a spirally descending tone to the first syllable, an almost French “eu” sound to the first vowel, a tiny pause between the syllables, and a deliberately popped “P.”

Though the moment when Screwtape transforms himself into a centipede is omitted, because the adapters couldn’t figure out how to present it onstage, Screwtape’s secretary Toadpipe (played in this performance by Beckley Andrews, one of three performers taking the part), who completes that letter for him, is present in a form like unto a cross between Peter Jackson’s Gollum in behavior and the Creature from the Black Lagoon in costume. She crouches on the floor to scribble on paper, climbs a ladder to send the letters up from hell and fetch Wormwood’s in the pneumatic tube, gesticulates and makes various Andy Serkis-like cat-barfing noises in response to Screwtape’s observations, and mimes assorted human characters as Screwtape describes them.

Lewis’s text is deliberately timeless. Screwtape mentions a human war (obviously World War II, during which the book was written), but, as Lewis notes, the demon is only interested in it insofar as it affects the potential damnation of Wormwood’s human “patient.” The adapters couldn’t help nudging the time period slightly when Screwtape describes the demonic plan to control sexual temptation in popular culture by throwing in visual and auditory references to the singer-actress Madonna, possibly no longer the most current example. To each his own, I guess.

Screwtape’s voice, and Toadpipe’s gurgles, are amplified, presumably with body mikes, and various amplified sound effects punctuate the production, particularly during Screwtape’s paean to noise and cacophony. For a moment there it was a little too close to hell for me.

 


Screwtape On Stage. . Adapted and directed for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean, presented by Fellowship for the Performing Arts. Performance at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performing Arts Center, January 21, 2012.

Learn More