I guess this is a good time to write a review about Shadowlands as according to its protagonist, none other than the illustrious academic C.S. Lewis, pleasure has no meaning without pain. “Why love if losing hurts so much? The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal.” Well I’ve had the pleasure of watching the play and am now feeling the pain of trying to describe an oddly complex piece of theatre in the middle of the night! This is the moving story of an unlikely but true romance between an aging Oxford don, Lewis (played to perfection by Charles Dance) and Joy Gresham (played by Janie Dee) a divorced American Jewess who became a Christian. A confirmed bachelor into his fifties, Lewis met and married this remarkable American woman, known for her outspoken views and acerbic wit. Although at first it was only a ‘technical’ marriage to avoid Gresham’s deportation to the US, Lewis was forced to confront his feelings about her when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Dance effortlessly captures Lewis’ emotional shyness in an understated performance of a man ill at ease in his own skin, constantly nervously fumbling in his pockets looking for something to hold onto. He’s the archetypal repressed English bachelor, unable to verbalise his feelings, even when asking for room service he asks for it “to be sent up… if that’s convenient.” Dee as Gresham, on the other hand, is intelligent, witty and altogether loveable, not afraid of engaging in some verbal jousting with the cloistered, misogynistic academics: when one of the dons is foolish enough to suggest to her that men have intellects while women have souls, her response: “are you being offensive or merely stupid?” is a classic. It’s not hard to see what Lewis fell for. The play has the fortune of possessing that great rarity in the West End, a first-rate script, written by William Nicholson (Shadowlands was first made for television, then went to the stage and was subsequently made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins, the screenplay for which Nicholson won an Oscar). It is smart and sharp, with excellent use of comic relief, preventing the pitfall of sloppy sentimentality.
“This world is no more than shadowlands, real life has not yet begun.” Even though the play beings and ends with Dance lecturing to the audience in what sounds like something taken from Lewis’ own writings – his words are not used. Perhaps this is why the play is so successful, it is a re-interpretation of Lewis’ thoughts, Lewis’ philosophy but “another version” as Nicholson explains in the programme. I would suggest a slightly toned down version, religious conviction made palatable to a modern audience by showing us that the premature death of a loved one can rattle even the staunchest faith. Nicholson does hit at something deeply rooted in the human psyche however. How we justify suffering, whether through faith as in this case, or by other means, is something we all have to deal with but how we do so is intensely personal. While I may not share Lewis’ views about a better world waiting for us, I understand the need to cling to it and if nothing else find his ideas beautifully portrayed both in the script and visually. This is especially the case with the striking use of lighting throughout the performance, optically referring us back to the shadows that we all are in Lewis’ rendering of our world.
Despite some strong performances and a great script, there was nevertheless something slightly peculiar about this performance which I can’t quite place: perhaps it was the surprising empty seats in the theatre (undeserved), a lack of real chemistry between Dance and Dee, a few fleeting instances of overacting or a bit too much shuffling between the scenes. Altogether however it was quite ‘touching,’ a word Lewis uses to describe Joy’s poems, not quite convincing enough to be heartbreaking but touching. Another thing which was somewhat unsettling was the role of Douglas, Joy’s young son, who has a central yet not wholly definable role. A sort of younger version of Lewis himself (who also lost his mother aged nine), he never really says much but has a ghostly presence and retreats into his own world every so often, twice actually entering the famous wardrobe of Lewis’ stories. The wardrobe is of course another brilliant use of lighting and set design, bringing my childhood fantasies to life and eluding a certain magical warmth.
At the end of the play, Lewis summarises the situation by concluding that “the boy chooses strength, the man chooses suffering” by which he means that this time he decided to love despite how vulnerable it would make him to loss. Whether he really chooses suffering is another issue, I would suggest that believing in “divine recycling” as Lewis’ friend Professor Christopher Riley (a delightfully cynical John Standing) puts it, is just another safety net – but then I have always been a cynic. For Lewis at least, as he writes in Douglas’ copy of The Magician’s Nephew during their first meeting, “the magic never ends.” Indeed, this is the story of a man who created an exceptional world through his writing - in which generations of children found refuge.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Charles Dance's extraordinarily moving performance..." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The supreme virtue of Michael Barker-Caven's production, however, is that it proves the play is much more than a Goodbye Mr Chips-style tearjerker. Its real subject is faith and doubt, and what it shows is how the protracted death of a loved one rattles even the staunchest Christian certainty." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "What [Charles] Dance magnificently captures, in fact, is a man belatedly discovering what it is to be fully human. Janie Dee is equally fine as his beloved Joy...this is a play that explores love, faith and the fragility of human happiness with great grace and generosity." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "[Charles] Dance’s...subtle, delicate account of a man waylaid by feelings he never knew he possessed. And Janie Dee, an actress who grows in stature with every stage outing, successfully catches Joy’s abrasiveness, her unpretentious devotion, the exhausting agony of the cancer that killed her, even the accent of a maverick who describes herself as an American Jewish Communist Christian."