(Chichester Festival Theatre, until 25 May 2019, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh)
C.S. ‘Jack’ Lewis is a confirmed bachelor. He and his big brother Warnie, a retired army major, live in comfortable companionship in a cottage in Headington near Oxford. Jack teaches English Literature at the University, at Magdalen, and gives popular lectures on how to square a profound Christian faith with the pain and suffering in the world. These are intellectual discussions – despite losing his mother at a young age, Jack has enjoyed an adult life which has protected him from the extremes of emotion. He lives in a world of scholarly, dusty bachelors; he enjoys intellectual sparring matches with his colleagues over sherry before Hall; and, to his academic friends’ amusement, he writes a series of popular children’s stories in his spare time. But Jack’s quiet, reserved existence undergoes profound change when he strikes up a correspondence with the spirited American writer Joy Gresham. English reserve, love and tragedy, faith, hope and loss come together in a gut-wrenching modern classic, currently showing at Chichester Festival Theatre with a magnificent central performance from Hugh Bonneville.
Jack gets lots of fan letters, but Joy Gresham’s stand out from the start. She’s intelligent, probing, thought-provoking. When she announces that she and her son Douglas will visit Oxford during their holiday in England, Jack and Warnie cautiously accept an invitation to meet for tea. It’s the start of a profound friendship between Jack and Joy: a delightful ongoing discussion about everything from their shared faith to the merits of the poet Sir Philip Sidney. When it becomes clear that Joy and Douglas will be in England over Christmas with nowhere to go, Jack insists that they join him and Warnie. His fellow dons are intrigued, and rather alarmed, by this forceful and opinionated woman; and rumours naturally start to spring up. But Jack is indignant: can’t a man and a woman be friends? As time goes on, however, his life and Joy’s begin to come together in ways he’d never expected and, when tragedy strikes, he must finally be honest with himself: an honesty which leads him into a tumultuous, painful new relationship with God too.
Shadowlands is a true story, transformed by the playwright William Nicholson into a sensitive drama about love in later life, driven by the same kind of repressed passion as you find in The Remains of the Day. Jack’s intellectual clarity about God, love and suffering becomes clouded with emotional complexity as he finally experiences the things he has been authoritatively speaking about for so long. His encounter with Joy brings life, hope and colour into his existence – but it also brings a contract. Happiness now opens up the possibility of pain later. To love is to risk having to lose. And it’s that daring, courageous contract that Jack makes, stepping away from his cosy world into the terrifying open storm of feeling, inching his way towards self-awareness.
So much of the production rests on the shoulders of the actor who plays Jack, and Hugh Bonneville was just absolutely fantastic. As I said to H, I don’t think he necessarily has the widest range as an actor – Jack wasn’t all that different, as a personality, from the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey – but that doesn’t matter if you get the casting right. And, by God, Bonneville was perfect here. He has the warmth and naivete that make Jack so endearing: he’s like an overgrown little boy, who’s never really had to encounter the real world as an adult, and who is teetering on the threshold of his cloistered college life. I don’t know whether C.S. Lewis was a particularly humorous sort of person, but Bonneville gives the fictional Jack a wit, humanity and generosity that work wonderfully well. He’s the kind of university tutor you’d long to have.
The play’s leitmotif is a lecture Jack gives about suffering, and how it is necessary to bring us closer to God. At the start, speaking purely from an intellectual angle, Jack’s convictions are firm, articulate, persuasive. As the play goes on, he finds himself repeating this same lecture, each time with greater doubt and uncertainty as his own experiences confront his intellectual beliefs. Bonneville falters little by little and, when he finally breaks down into tears towards the end, the shock is almost physical. He is the beating heart of this production and this is surely one of the greatest performances of his career.
It’s almost unfair for me to focus so much on Bonneville, because everyone else was brilliant. As Joy, Liz White was vivacious with an edge of steel: a woman who has been disappointed too often in life to trust her dreams, but who has the courage to dream nevertheless. She and Bonneville played off beautifully against each other, and White keeps Joy sharp and witty to the end. There’s one wonderful exchange where, to paraphrase, Jack says: “You see what it takes to make me be honest with myself?” “Do you think I overdid it?” whips back Joy, lying in bed, dying of advanced cancer. Black, bleak humour, but the kind of humour that’s necessary in such a situation. Around these two protagonists orbit a solar-system of excellent supporting roles: Jack’s good-natured brother Warnie, played by Andrew Havill, who sees the truth of things long before anyway else; Jack’s arrogant, prickly colleague Christopher Riley, played superbly by Timothy Watson (channelling a soupcon of Anthony Blanche); the well-meaning Rev. Harry Harrington, played by Emilio Doorgasingh, who struggles to deal with Jack’s evolving religious needs but who remains caring and supportive. And, by no means least among the supporting cast, Eddie Martin as Joy’s little boy Douglas, a passionate Narnia fan who struggles to understand the boundaries between magic and reality.
I wasn’t going to write about Shadowlands, you know. I don’t write about everything I do, and this was just meant to be a fun girls’ day out with H, involving second hand bookshops and a nice dinner after the show. Besides, I know the film of Shadowlands well and I didn’t think a play was going to live up to it. I was so wrong. The theatre comes to life in moments like this. Watching a story unfolding in the dark for two hours before your very eyes, sharing the space with the actors, feeling the tension of the audience around you, and separated from all potential distractions, packs a powerful punch. I’ve rarely seen a play which affected me as deeply as this did yesterday, and I don’t even mean that my eyes got a bit watery: it’s more than that. With performances like this, you are caught up so deeply in the characters’ emotions that you feel you’ve been through hell with them. When the lights blacked out at the end, there was one of those wonderful hanging-breath moments when you can feel the audience struggling to process what just happened, before the applause. Applause and very well-deserved standing ovations.
Incredible, deeply moving, powerful and haunting, this is one of the best things I’ve seen on stage for a very long time. In fact, it was a privilege to see it, so huge thanks to H for suggesting the trip. If you have the chance, head out to Chichester Festival Theatre before the end of the run, because you will not regret it.
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