There are two sides to your consciousness: your good side (the Angel) and your bad side (the Devil). They sit on your shoulder, pulling you between different choices and actions, and ultimately, one or the other wins out.
In The Screwtape Letters, a play directed and adapted by Hailey McQueen based on novelist C.S Lewis' satirical novel about temptation in the Christian understanding, the Devil is brought to life on stage and the audience follows him as he mentors his nephew in his career as a "tempter". Screwtape, a senior demon, writes letters to his "junior tempter" nephew, Wormwood, whose main project has been to tempt a man we only know as "The Patient".
Yannick Lawry as Screwtape and George Zhao as Toadpipe / Photo by John Leung
The Screwtape Letters follows the correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood, whose task it is to secure the damnation of a young man known as "The Patient". Screwtape has been in the tempting biz a long time, and he'll be damned (well, he IS damned, I guess) if his nephew stuffs up his career by letting The Patient turn to good rather than evil.
The book was one of Lewis' most popular novels (he also wrote the Narnia series of books, and, as a man deeply espoused in Christianity, he was not afraid to use that as the basis of his commentary on human nature. It was absurd in book form, and that sense of absurdity and black comedy has not been lost in the theatrical performance.
Through Clock & Spiel Productions, director McQueen has allowed Screwtape (played by Yannick Lawry to go wonderfully dark, and play up a deliciously evil character. His "sidekick" Toadpipe, a character added in the theatre production and played here by George Zhao, is a great foil to his master's levelled demeanour. The elements bringing it all together, from the set design (a wonderful cavern of oddities and what I can only imagine leather bound books that smell of stale cigars), to the lighting (blackouts mean a letter from Wormwood had arrived from the other dimension) to the sound and music (a soundtrack that evokes the feeling of Steven Toast blundering through life - in a good way) push this production into another level of entertainment. Whilst the audience questions their very ideals of good and evil, we're allowed to chuckle at our follies, too.
Only two people were on stage - Lawry as Screwtape and Zhao as Toadpipe, and they delivered solid performances. Fans of the book may have imagined Screwtape as a professor character, disseminating nuggets of wisdom from his ivory tower of higher learning (as indeed Lewis was an academic). Lawry's Screwtape plays more like an urbane pretentious type, who despairs in his nephew's inability to trap his prey. He's the guy you see on public transport bragging loudly on his phone. He's the guy who takes your parking spot even though he sees your blinker on. He's the guy who won't hold the lift. He'll talk incessantly about saving the world but will yell at waitstaff and his date in public. He's that guy.
Zhao as Toadpipe has an unbelievable physical energy about him that works off Lawry's even demeanour. He wants to please him, like an indentured servant would. He's the comic relief and without him, the play would not be as entertaining as it was.
Much of the play, naturally, takes its dialogue from the book. Lewis used Christian ideas in his works and this has not been removed from the play. Many people may be curious to see if the play comes off as "preachy" but it's not like an after-school special for the Catholic kids at all. In fact, what makes The Screwtape Letters an enduring piece of literature - and probably what prompted the stage adaptation - is that we can compare the bad, or what Screwtape represents, to the bad in our lives, and in our society. Screwtape encourages his nephew to tempt his "patient" into spending time with people who don't care and caring about things that don't matter. He laments his nephew's updates about the "patient" falling in love. He rejoices in the "patient"'s desire for empty pursuits. In one telling line, Screwtape says, "The safest road to Hell is the gradual one. The gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts". It's a line that's as timely as ever.
George Zhao as Toadpipe / Photo by John Leung
For what it's worth, with this review written in November 2016, in an age where there is so much more upheaval worldwide, this production of The Screwtape Letters is like theatre's version of a moral compass, reminding us of what's good, what's evil, and that there's still a lot of hope and laughter for us mere mortals.