The Screwtape Letters – Canberra Theatre Centre

There are many ways that Hell could be represented on stage. Walking into The Courtyard Studio of the Canberra Theatre Centre to find an office straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel was, needless to say, not what I expected.

This austere academic venue is wallpapered by a brewing, luminous storm scene, the first suggestion of the thematic darkness to come. This set, designed by Isabella Andronos for Clock and Spiel’s production of The Screwtape Letters, captures the scholarly eccentricity of this intelligent and witty production.

Wormwood is an incompetent demon tasked with luring a newly converted Christian from Heaven to Hell. Screwtape (Yannick Lawry), his devilishly charismatic mentor, is a senior demon, dishing out written advice and preaching to his nephew on the best method to corrupt humanity.

Their correspondence is framed from Screwtape’s perspective as he dictates his letters to ToadPipe (George Zhao), his assistant. Wormwood only exists on stage in epistolary form, and thus the action of The Screwtape Letters is centred on these two ever-present characters.

Adapted from C.S. Lewis’ satirical literary masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters is a thoughtful, verbose reflection upon the frailties of human nature. Screwtape has the wisdom of an ontologist, philosopher and historian, and delivers his musings with razor sharp wit.

Every time a letter is written, ToadPipe ‘posts’ it. And by post I mean he throws, chucks and flicks it out into the abyss outside the platformed room. These moments are accompanied by Adam Jones’ just-so sound design; he’s crafted a catchy melody that’s both upbeat and melancholy. This ritual, accompanied by music, announces a new chapter, giving the narrative a rhythm which propels the play forward.

The Screwtape Letters draws some interesting parallels with Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Endgame, recently staged at Sydney Theatre Company in 2015. Both take place in a single room estranged from a hellish world, involve highbrow philosophical musings, and feature a master/slave dynamic.

The narrative bounds through Screwtape’s numerous letters with a plodding repetition. Screwtape dictates the letters, the letters are sent, repeat. There is a version of this story that, like the recent Endgame, could’ve been very boring (and at times the dry monotony of the original text is hard to escape). However director, and adaptor Hailey McQueen succeeds where Upton’s Endgame failed – by balancing philosophical verbiage with physical slapstick humour to sustain audience engagement.

George Zhao is a masterful physical comic, wriggling his body in and out of characters in a way which evinces his background as a Commedia dell’arte performer. Yannick Lawry is a magnetic stage presence as Screwtape, a natural orator with a wickedly captivating voice.

The Screwtape Letters has moments of intelligent, witty and entertaining drama. For all its charms however, its long-winded style makes it a difficult piece to swallow. But even if occasionally the dialogue is too difficult to follow, there’s still enough here in the performances and design to keep you interested.


Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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