The controversial relationship between C.S. Lewis (best known as the writer of the Narnia chronicles) and American divorcee Joy Gresham is the basis for the story of Shadowlands. It began as a written correspondence, then became a platonic friendship, then a "technical" marriage of convenience for Gresham to earn British citizenship and finally, a true (and ultimately tragic) marriage of love. Writer William Nicholson charts each stage and uses it as the catalyst to create a play that addresses issues of platonic and romantic love, religion, the nature of suffering, the existence and compassion of God and much, much more. It makes for a dense, rich, extremely intelligent script that is still a delight to behold, even 25 years after it was first written as a television film.
Where this incarnation of Shadowlands falls short is in some clumsy and fussy direction by Christian Heim. Perhaps he felt worried about being able to hold an audience's attention for two hours with what is essentially a play of words rather than action, as he has added a mime (Ira Seidenstein), music (a marimba and glockenspiel played by himself and Ben Heim) and an installation of quite beautiful light sculptures as a set piece (created by Daniel Templeman). The music and the sculpture are lovely and create a nice atmosphere when they are required, but frankly the mime is just an awkward extra that takes away from the dignity of many of the scenes. It's an example of over-directing a script that was truly strong enough to stand alone and keep an audience enthralled.
Some of the best scenes in Shadowlands occur when characters are doing nothing but standing across from each other, delivering these beautifully written lines. This is especially true when the four main male characters take to the stage to discuss love, religion, women, fantasy, or fornication. There's the dithering but endearing priest Harry (Michael Thomas), the stoic Warnie, Lewis' brother (played by Steven Tandy), the wonderfully acerbic Christopher (Ian McFayden) and C.S. Lewis himself (played by Warwick Comber). These four men are veterans of the stage and the way they rise up to meet the demands of such an eloquent script while also creating such genuine, affectionate and familiar relationships with each other is excellent.
As the centre of this group, Comber is brilliant as the scholarly, witty Lewis. His deep baritone voice washes over the audience and makes his lines sound like poetry and Comber handles his character's development from affirmed bachelor to devoted husband beautifully.
The chemistry between he and Joy Gresham (Caroline Beck) is just right too. The two skilled actors traverse the nervous, hesitant beginnings of their friendship as they battle their respective pasts and they skillfully show us the moments when they begin to see each other as more than friends and actually start to fall in love.
Caroline Beck captures Joy's frantic energy and brash American persona perfectly, to the point where, initially, you really do think of her as "ghastly" as Christopher describes her at one point. But, little by little, Beck lets Joy soften and win us over and we can see just how Lewis falls in love with her. Beck's American accent does slip and slide around a little at times, but she does an good job of reigning it back in and it never detracts from her scenes.
Conor Leach as Joy's young son Douglas also does a very respectable American accent and handles his emotional scenes very, very well. He's onstage with professional actors (some of whom were at NIDA decades before he was born) and he still manages to hold his own. Warren Meacham and John Sayles provide adequate support in the roles of a priest and a doctor respectively.
Shadowlands suffers slightly because of the amateur direction. But listen to the words of such a skilled playwright and the magnificent actors delivering them and you'll be moved by this play.
Crossbow Productions presents
by William Nicholson
Venue: Visy Theatre
Dates: Thu 29 Jul - Sat 31 Jul + Wed 4 Aug - Sat 7 Aug
Tickets: $35 (f) $25 (c/ group 8+)