C. S. LEWIS did not enjoy writing The Screwtape Letters. In the 1960s, he confessed that it was the only book that he had not taken pleasure in writing. “Making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing,” he explained.
Max McLean’s performance as the anti-hero of the book’s title in this theatrical adaptation is nothing if not energetic. He strides around the stage, resplendent in a red-brocade smoking jacket, spitting out his letters in dictation, before thrusting the replies forcefully on to a metal spike. Articulating the word “prayer” brings on a bout of retching, and he can barely bring himself to utter the word “love”. Every signature is elongated — “Screeeeeeew” — concluding in a lip-smacking “p”.
A feat of memory — 31 letters have been condensed into 90 minutes — the performance is the passionate work of a man on a mission. McLean, an American, has brought the play to London with the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which he founded to produce “theatre from a Christian worldview”. A Lewis devotee, he has adapted other works, including The Great Divorce. In an audience Q&A after the performance, he defended the play as an important riposte to the “determinist” viewpoint offered by secularists.
Lewis imagined the letters as the work of a devil, advising his nephew on how best to steer a man towards “Our Father” (in hell). McLean has produced a faithful adaptation. Although some small changes have been made to render it less specific to 1940s Britain — there are references to a “terror attack” rather than the War — audiences can expect a word-for-word recitation of the original letters. It is a reminder of just how astute Lewis could be, when it came to analysing human behaviour. A letter about the unrealistic depiction of women in popular art, “directing the desires of men to something which does not exist”, resonates today, as does the witty description of the “connoisseur” of churches.
The theology underpinning the letters will trouble some. The letters are the work of a sensitive conscience, ever-fearful of taking even the smallest step away from the narrow path. The safest way to hell, Screwtape advises his nephew, is “the gradual one, without milestones or signposts”. While the red-lit wall of skulls which serves as MacLean’s backdrop evokes the worst of earthly evil — Rwanda or Cambodia’s Killing Fields — the message is that “murder is not better than cards, if cards can do the trick.”
At times, the high-octane delivery of rage and retching can be a little tiring. But the production is a thoughtful one: Screwtape dictates the letters to a junior devil, Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight ), a lizard-like creature who not only slithers up a ladder to post them, but acts out some of the human subjects depicted therein. Occasional bursts of sound from above, indicative of celebrations in heaven, feel genuinely celestial.
The original letters must have brought comfort to readers enduring the darkness of the Second World War. Lewis’s medicine was to “make bads ‘good’”. War is dangerous for the devil, Screwtape explains, because it forces men to confront their mortality, rendering “contended worldiness” useless. “How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes.”
In 2016, when politicians speak once again of existential threats, these passages retain a particular power. McLean is to be congratulated for his act on faith in bringing them, unadulterated, to the stage.
At the Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4, until 7 January. Box office: phone 020 7870 6876. www.parktheatre.co.uk fpatheatre.com