BETTER TO RANT IN HELL..
Magnificent in military jacket as he lectures the College of Tempters, then at ease in his study in fine brocade against a marvellous backdrop of skulls and bones and fire, Screwtape dictates his letters to a junior, his nephew Wormwood. Our hero is a senior in Hell, his unseen correspondent a rookie nephew, deployed as a guardian-devil tasked with tempting a youngish human, sabotaging his Christian conversion and undermining his virtues.
The older man’s monologue is accompanied not by any sign of the humans – messages are sent and received via a splendid fiery tube at the top of a ladder – but by the scaly-ragged, face-painted, lithe junior secretarial devil Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight ), who skips, crawls, gibbers and occasionally, rather brilliantly, acts out in dumb-show the human characters Screwtape desribes as living around the patient. This is particularly fine during the riff about how, over centuries, Hell has managed to distract human males from women likely to produced happy healthy marriages, teaching them instead to admire impossible haughtiness, fainting feebleness, a boyish outline which no normal woman can keep ontor many years, or shapes so artificial that they both disappoint men and put pressure on women. Wight does them all in a few neat moves.
But as he stalks, this Screwtape lays it on hard, some of his delivery made almost unclear by emphasis: for too much of the time Max McLean rants, shouts, drawls, acting more like an overweening arrogant demagogue than an academic, thoughtful, experienced adviser. He needs to be more urbane, smoother, more nuanced : because that is the way C.S. Lewis wrote him in the famous 1941 book. It is notable that McLean is credited not only as performer but co-adaptor, founder of the US production company FPA and – crucially – director. I applaud the enterprise, but wish it a tougher hand on the performer.
That gave me a problem, though probably not universally shared, because I have known the book from childhood, and treasured the sharp elegant prose and Lewis’ deadly serious playfulness as he inhabits the mindset of an imagined devil: ravenous for souls, relishing human suffering but always haunted by the prospect of failure when one slips from Hell’s grip into the clear light of heaven, which to the underworld’s dark denizens is a blinding, suffocating, noxious horror. Screwtape is a great creation, a minatory, didactic senior uncle experienced in bringing about damnation. Which is defined, as always in Lewis’ theology (see The Great Divorce) as an individual’s gradual distancing him or herself from God and the virtues God enjoins.
But that is an issue of direction and tone, and the script, solid Lewis, is worth it. There is plenty of fine sharp psychology in Screwtape’s proposals: his definition of “the gluttony of delicacy” in which people eat moderately but fussily is apropos in the age of clean-eaters and faddish. Equally, his favourite way to ensure damnation is not provoking huge sudden crimes but creating mere lethargy and neglect of duty: since Satan hates pleasure as well as virtue, the best catch is not when you get a man carousing, but drinking alone and bored by a dying fire; or neglecting his duty not for fun or good reading but mere distraction that bores him (bring on the social media and the box-sets). And – in a rare updating Screwtape brandishes a big Madonna album – there is the startling message that the job of temptation is now largely devolved by hell to the example of “demagogues, dictators, and almost all screen and music stars”.
box office 0207 870 6876 to 7 Jan