Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Review: Shadowlands

Despite expectation of intellectual nourishment and considerable emotional power (as widely reported by the newspaper critics), Shadowlands (Whyndhams) left me rather cold.

Firstly, I’m no expert on CS Lewis, and don’t know much about his work beyond the Narnia books and his profound faith. So the story of his late romance with an American divorcee was probably less interesting to me than a more generally autobiographical piece would have been (or maybe not if the piece had been more successful in its aims). Shodowlands explores love and grief, but I thought rather unconvincingly. The first act is a very detached experience, and of course being in England in the 1950’s that might be partly the desired effect. William Nicholson’s 1989 plays is perfectly competent, there is nothing that is particularly bad, it just doesn’t seem to come together as anything substantial. This revival is directed by Michael Baker-Caven, with a utilitarian set comprising of huge bookcases (mostly representing a study most of the time) by Matthew Wright.

Charles Dance is wonderful as Lewis, very much the cold English don (though born in Belfast), who seems to fall in love despite himself, and certainly against his strong beliefs. Janie Dee as Joy Gresham, the woman Lewis eventually marries, was so good as a New York Jew (now converted to Christianity), that I actually only remembered it was her at the curtain call. Gresham comes to Cambridge to meet Lewis whom she has admired for years, and when her unseen husband leaves her she moves to England with her young son. Her friendship with Lewis eventually turns into love, and they are married. At first this is just a civil ceremony to keep her in the country, but after she is diagnosed with cancer, Lewis seems to be shocked into action and takes his chance and tentatively declares his love. A Christian marriage (Lewis was a devout member of the church, and noted theologian, but he overlooked moral objection to marrying a divorcee) follows in her hospital bed. She only lived for a few year after that, and of course the fact that they found love later in life (or Gresham provoked it, as the play infers) is nice, and the fact that she died relatively young is sad. But beyond that I didn’t really much care about any of the characters, only Lewis’s stiff brother warming to his new sister in law made me smile. The fact that Gresham collapses melodramatically at the end of act one, with no sign of illness before, also seemed indicative of the lacking drama being replaced by incident.

One for lovers of the more sedate stage I think, but also a good demonstration of acting talent.

1 comment:

Nugae said...

The only Shadowlands worth seeing is the original TV production with Joss Ackland. Staggering power in the tiniest details.

Plays have to be less intense than television because the audience can't look away as easily. At least that was my excuse for being unmoved by this play the first time it was on the stage: your review has convinced me that things haven't changed in the revival.

There was a film made - around 1994? - that was completely anaemic. Hollywood audiences can't take any actual emotion at all, so all we got was a lot of It-Shouldn't-Happen-to-a-Vet-style 1940s nostalgia of cars driving over wild Yorkshire hills. Pretty, and pretty pointless.

But the TV film that started it all is still a masterpiece.