An Evening with CS Lewis
David Payne's play is heavy on anecdote but light on the good stuff – the books
CS Lewis wrote the entirety of The Magician’s Nephew to explain the existence of a lamp post.
Why, he was asked by Roger Lancelyn Green, was there a dirty great Victorian street lamp in the middle of his postlapsarian paradise, the first thing that Lucy Pevensie sees when she first steps into Narnia?
And I think I rather know how she feels as I walk up the drive to Campbell College in pitch darkness, as black as a wardrobe stuffed full of fur coats. It’s a long driveway and there is not a single light on the entire route. But then, as perhaps the only pedestrian left in Belfast, I’m the only patron not fitted with headlamps.
We’re at Campbell College for David Payne’s An Evening with CS Lewis as part of the CS Lewis Festival. Lewis was, of course, born in Belfast, the family house, Little Leas, is about ten minutes walk from the college gates and Lewis himself briefly attended the school as a child. So the venue is apposite.
The theatre too is interesting, a bare wooden crate adorned with framed fliers of previous productions – musicals predominate, and South Pacific looks particularly exciting. There is a school play ambience tonight too, the excitable murmur of audience chat. Everybody seems to know one another.
The stage is a bare, black box but for a table, a teacup and a very comfortable looking armchair. (It will need to be comfortable.) The setting is Oxford in the early 1960s and the audience are, for the purposes of the play’s narrative, a group of visiting American journalists here to hear the great man speak.
Lewis appears from a side door and plonks himself down in the chair. He is paunchy in a cardigan and a fair amount of slap. He looks like Peter Glaze from Crackerjack (one for our older readers, there). His voice is crisp and convivial, projecting beautifully lots of gravel and gravitas as he wriggles into his chair.
The chat is anecdotal and easy. Big names are dropped. On meeting TS Eliot, the dialogue goes thus: 'You look much older than your publicity photos, Mr Lewis.' 'You seem a bit more lucid than your poems would suggest, Mr Eliot.' And then there is Lewis' personal formula for ego: 'Embellish, garnish, overstate.'
Payne has been performing this show in the States for a long time, and it shows. Where he comes unstuck slightly is attempting to tailor the play to a Belfast crowd. 'We’ll start the way any Englishman would – with a cup of tea,' he says, before adding, slightly unconvincingly, 'Or Irishman, really.' In a performance this smooth, the little stutters stick out like barbs.
The anecdotes keep coming throughout the first half: Lewis elects to be called Jack instead of his given name, Clive, after his dead dog. He develops a prejudice against the French at the age of six. Asked why he replies, 'If I knew that, it would hardly be a prejudice.'
Teaching at Oxford he encounters a 'lazy show off' student in piggy slippers. It proves to be John Betjemen. He chats to a professor of Anglo Saxon who remarks, 'I don’t like Shakespeare or any of these modern poets.' It’s Tolkien.
Honed anecdote follows honed anecdote, all impeccably delivered, and then Lewis disappears back into his wardrobe with some blather about his brother, Warnie, making the tea, and it’s the interval and we all troop out and I avail myself of a complimentary glass of wine, and nobody else does as they are all driving.
Part two is split evenly between Lewis’ abandonment of atheism at the age of 31 – he decided he didn’t believe in God as a child as 'God was rather like a friend who never wrote back' – and with his meeting with the woman who would later become his wife, Joy Davidman, and her subsequent death from cancer.
The anecdotes rather dry up here, though the story of his meeting with Joy and their subsequent relationship – theirs was initially a marriage of convenience until they realised that they were in love – is a remarkable story in itself.
This is the strange, fusty and rather sexless world that fans of MR James would recognise: involving donnish, elderly men who aren’t good or used to being near women. A very different Lewis emerges from his book, A Grief Observed, an altogether fleshier, human character.
My major problem with this production is that the things that made the subject CS Lewis – his books – are barely touched upon. I’m not evening talking about the Narnia books or the Space trilogy or The Screwtape Letters, which Lewis himself would probably have swept under the carpet. But in two hours – hence the necessity for comfortable chairs – even the serious Christian Apologist tomes are hardly mentioned.
Instead we get rather pointless anecdotes about Winston Churchill and 'Warnie’s drinking poem'. Anecdotes are fine, but CS Lewis, whether he likes it or not, is all about the big allegorical talking lion.