Seymour Centre, Sydney
Directed by Hailey McQueen
Starring Yannick Lawry and George Zhao
by Ben McEachen
Satirical letters about steering people away from God and on to Hell don't sound like the top candidates for a stage show. But director Hailey McQueen's adaptation of some of the most famous writings by Narnia visionary C.S. Lewis is a clever and sophisticated play of subtle provocation. Empowered by engaging performances and quality material, the first Australian stage production of The Screwtape Letters hums with the laudable wallop of having something potent to say in an unusual way.
To bring letters to life, McQueen designed veteran demon Screwtape as a Hell heavyweight who has a scribe to jot down his communication with junior tempter Wormwood.
Yannick Lawry laps up being Screwtape. As if a dapper English professor of soul destruction, Lawry's well able to swing from anger to glee as required. Although the bookending scenes of Screwtape addressing Hell's apprentices notably lack the life and zing of what happens between them, Lawry steadily inhabits Screwtape with appealing gusto.
Given he's effectively acting out an inner monologue, Lawry never resorts to dispassionate reading. Astutely, McQueen and Lawry register that Screwtape on stage needs to deliver robust dictation when instructing about how best to tempt humans away from God's love, goodness and salvation.
Lawry measures his levels of animated imparting, buoyed by the addition of scribe Toadpipe (George Zhao, whose grip on comic timing is matched by a grasp on considered support). This shrewd creation by McQueen injects moments of slapstick and movement into what might have been a dull study of penmanship. Instead, Toadpipe is Igor to Screwtape's Dr Frankenstein, and the excellent choice to let Toadpipe explain some theories (complete with blackboard diagrams) bolsters the on-stage dynamics.
Lawry and Zhao share an easy rapport, holding the sparse stage of sprawled letters, elevated letterbox and a few movable props. A few other atmospherics are also included for laughs or colour (jaunty music and repeated sound effects), without detracting from the driving force of Lewis's inventive approach to Christian apologetics.
What can get in the way is that some of Lawry or Zhao's positioning on stage makes it difficult for the audience to see their actions. But their sitting on the floor or at the stage's edge isn't as testing as taking in all of Lewis's swipes and affirmations.
Structured as a cycle of letters, McQueen's adaptation of The Screwtape Letters doesn't hold back on the content. Audience members may struggle to keep up with the barrage of wry critique Lewis gives about the human condition. Sadly, this battle to keep up AND chew over the state of our souls can dilute the impact of McQueen's production. But that's a good problem to have, because we'll want to come back for repeat viewings of a bold adaptation that successfully shares Christian truths and beliefs in a mainstream setting.