John Kennedy reviews the Rep’s latest stunning production. Photo: Jack Ladenburg.
A fundamental essence of indomitable humanity courses through William Nicholson’s superbly-crafted imagining of the controversial relationship between author CS “Jack” Lewis and the 17-years-younger American poet/intellectual dynamo Joy Gresham.
Now comfortable again in his Christian certainty, his earlier crisis of faith much abated by the support of longtime friend and academic spur JRR Tolkien, Jack’s opening-scene tutorial focuses on concepts of pain, love and suffering and his unshakeable theological interpretation of God’s purpose. This life is but a passing phase, this world is insubstantial, it is but a shadowland. It is an illusion that all is well. God’s gift of suffering is our salvation.
All too soon, Jack will find his faith mortally tested. The austere Neo-Gothic window arches that frame designer Anne-Marie Woodley and director Alastair Whatley’s light-oak, half-paneled settings perfectly capture a mid-50s atmosphere of Oxford academia at ease with itself in Senior Common Room certainty.
Jack, by now a celebrated children’s author of the ongoing Narnia anthology, is increasingly intrigued by letters from America written by a clearly very intelligent Mrs Gresham. Jack’s brother Warnie –retired major, walrus-gruff and crossword-consumed – is not impressed. Inevitably, they meet. Jack is astounded by her unabashed candour, American vibrancy and searching intelligence. On her increasing visits to Jack and Warnie’s home, he is anxious to tuck away his pipe and dressing gown! To be friends, honest, good friends – they agree that they can agree on that. A subsequent enforced divorce from her alcoholic husband back home surely makes no difference.
Stephen Boxer captures perfectly the rising intensity of Jack’s struggle to circle the confining squares of his theological certainties – his logical and intense honesty set against reemerging emotions of love and feminine comfort he hasn’t allowed himself to admit to since the childhood death of his mother. Amanda Ryan’s Joy possesses charm, candour and keening intelligence, together with a sometimes-visceral vulnerability. They are characters we can immerse our trust in – we laugh at Jack’s startled reactions to Joy’s abrupt challenges, we gasp at her seeming flippancy as they confront her impending death. The somewhat staid settings of tutorial room, study and fusty post-Edwardian lounges suggest a meagre canvas for Alex Wardle’s lighting opportunities. They are sublime in economy, invention and empathy. Joy’s son Douglas, played with assured reserve by Shannon Rewcroft, ever enchanted by Jack’s Narnian fantasy world, momentarily escapes into it through shimmering frosted windows – Wardle’s lighting wizardry again. Narnia a surrogate comfort, a nuanced suggestion of the displacement creativity Jack may have dedicated to the novels in compensation for grief over a dying mother.
A consummate production – crafted and knife-edge honed, brimming with intelligence, its life-affirming sincerity celebrated through chandelier-sparkling language.
Shadowlands runs at the Rep until June 4. For more information, visit http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/event/shadowlands/.