The Screwtape Letters is one of CS Lewis’ most popular works and the author himself is more popular today than he ever was in his own lifetime. So adapting a CS Lewis work into a play comes with a certain level of pressure, and even more so when the play is the first adaptation of the work to be performed in Australia.
But 33-year-old Hailey McQueen isn’t fazed. Well, not much, anyway. She’s adapting, directing and producing The Screwtape Letters for its first airing in Australia across one weekend in October at Sydney’s Seymour Centre.
The idea of creating a play based on the The Screwtape Letters has been knocking around in Hailey’s mind for five years, since she saw a version of the story on Broadway. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” says Hailey. “But I was always doing other things.”
This year, halfway through her first pregnancy, Hailey found herself with a bit of breathing space. She’d just finished acting in a play in Sydney’s independent theatre scene, but by the end of the run her costume was getting a little tight. “My pregnancy was just starting to show. And I got to a point where it was like, ‘Well, I can’t really act right now. So how can I use this time well?’ ”
Hailey, who attends Northside Community Church in Sydney and works as an actress and drama lecturer at Excelsia College (formerly Wesley Institute), is part of a monthly Bible study group called ‘Acting in Faith’ run by fellow actor and Christian, Yannick Lawry. Hailey and Yannick had been talking about something they could produce that was “totally within our industry, within our craft but that had some kind of weight.”
“We were looking for something that was thought-provoking, that could potentially grab a secular audience while providing a perspective on God, on Christianity, to encourage people to think a little more deeply,” said Hailey.
And so, twenty weeks into her pregnancy, Hailey decided to “just go for it”.
Getting permission to adapt a CS Lewis work is no easy feat, but after months of back and forth with the CS Lewis estate, which looks after the copyright of his works, Hailey received permission to write an adaptation.
“I read Screwtape cover-to-cover six times, and went over and over particular passages,” said Hailey of the process of writing the adaptation. She took it as a sign of encouragement when, having sent her script back to the CS Lewis estate, they approved it with no changes.
The Screwtape Letters follows correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his nephew – a “junior temptor” called Wormwood. Wormwood is charged with guiding a man called “the patient” away from God and towards the Devil, and Screwtape’s letters school Wormwood in the devil’s tempting ways.
The play follows the story of the “patient”, though the character is never seen on stage. All the action takes place in the demon Screwtape’s office, where Screwtape writes his letters to Wormwood with his scribe, Toadpipe.
Actor Yannick Lawry, who attends one1seven church, an Anglican church in Green Square in south Sydney, will play Screwtape. George Zhao, a recent drama graduate of Excelsia College will play Toadpipe.
Hailey says there have been a few changes to the setting, bringing the story out of its context of World War II so it is more relevant to a modern audience.
But it’s still all based in the spiritual realm, and Hailey says she’d be lying if she said that wasn’t a concern for how the audience will react.
“Really, the play says there is only one way to live. You can’t avoid the fact that it says you’re either on a path to heaven, or to hell. As harsh as that sounds in our postmodern society, that’s the message. So yes, I don’t know what the reaction will be like.
“But I think we all want to talk about spiritual things, whether that’s couched in terms of the “new age” or whether we’re talking about the “powers of the universe”, or whether we talk about God and the devil, heaven and hell. I think the conversations that come out of this will be really interesting ones.”
Hailey says she’s learned a lot personally from her months of work on the play.
“I think it’s really easy as a Christian to be just ‘getting on with life’ and not thinking at all about the spiritual things that might be going on.”
One quote from the book really stuck out for Hailey, when Screwtape says, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
“There’s so much in that,” says Hailey. “There’s so much that happens to us when we’re not looking, not noticing. If we’re not growing and moving forward to Christ, perhaps we’re being changed in another way that we hadn’t intended.”
CS Lewis is hugely popular within the Christian world, but Hailey says this is a play for non-Christians too, and perhaps an opportunity for Christians to invite some of their non-believing friends along.
“I love the contrast between the subject matter and the delivery. It’s really quite deep and sinister in many ways, but there’s a lot of fun in it.
“It’s the kind of work that you can’t walk away from and not talk about. You just have to have a conversation afterwards. I hope people will walk away wanting to chat more about what they’ve seen.”
The Screwtape Letters is being supported by Twisted Tree Theatre, the alumni theatre company of Excelsia College. All proceeds will be donated to The Exodus Foundation, a Christian organisation helping the homeless in Sydney. Tickets are on sale from Monday 7 September. For more information, go to screwtapeshow.com.au.