Andrew Illsley and Cole Matson teamed up in semester one to bring us The World Over, a swashbuckling adventure of epic proportions. Now, in semester two, they have brought us an entirely different show: Shadowlands, a story of love and loss in which the hero is the creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. Based on the writer’s memoirs entitled Surprised by Joy, William Nicholson’s play follows Lewis – known as ‘Jack’ – and Joy Gresham, a fan of the writer who gets to know him through letters. On a visit to England, American Joy meets Jack, along with her young son Douglas, for a cup of tea. Within minutes he’s inviting her for tea at his own home, and before long she’s staying for Christmas. Despite the apprehension of his scholarly friends, Jack is soon battling with his feelings for a married woman.
Emily Thomas as the quick-witted, unsmiling Joy Gresham was (if you’ll forgive the pun) a joy to watch. Her flawless accent and shrewd looks gave a sense that she was utterly immersed in her fascinating character. Christopher Mayr as Major W.H. ‘Warnie’ Lewis was charmingly reserved and good-natured, while Michael Shanks, despite being as tall as the adults on stage, was thoroughly convincing as Joy’s son Douglas; his moments on stage were some of the most poignant. But the audience were rarely able to take their eyes off Simon Lamb as Jack. Delivering three stirring monologues during the performance, Lamb was able to engage the audience unerringly for long periods of time. His uncertainty as he explained his beliefs in why God makes people suffer, his anger as he railed against God for hurting Joy, and his utter desolation as he tried to come to terms with her loss were truly moving; the audience was so thoroughly convinced by his grief and resignation that it was clear everyone was fighting back tears when the lights went down for the final time.
Nestled into the background throughout the performance were a bare tree with silver fruit and a wardrobe. The latter has clear connotations for Lewis, and the tree was a reference to The Magician’s Nephew, in which a young boy brings back a magical fruit from another world and saves his dying mother. The stage was cast in a deep red light and fairy lights twinkled and flickered on the tree to the sound of a music-box tune as the character of Douglas plucked a fruit from the tree and placed it in his mother’s hand where she lay asleep in her hospital bed. This staging was beautifully evocative, but an earlier scene in which Douglas had stepped through the wardrobe had ended so abruptly that it had confused the audience a little. The idea behind it was, however, both clever and moving.
The backstage crew made their presence felt throughout the performance; an unfortunate let-down to an otherwise wonderful show. If only Jack’s musings on silence hadn’t been punctuated by a crash from behind the curtain.
Illsley and Matson should be proud of another performance that surprised and involved its audience. Jack tells his dying wife that this world, and her pain, is ‘only shadows’, but their vivid and immersive staging was so much more.
Image credit – Elle Cronin