"Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal." – C.S. Lewis – Shadowlands
William Nicholson’s Shadowlands tells the story of Oxford scholar and famed author C. S. Lewis and his relationship with Joy Gresham, an American fan, whom he befriends and eventually marries. Lewis, a long term bachelor, must come to terms with falling in love and dealing with the pain and suffering that inevitably comes in turn. Sadly, Joy is diagnosed with terminal cancer and Lewis must struggle with, not only personal pain and grief, but his own philosophies about life and faith.
This is indeed a deeply moving play which will resonate with many as it very clearly has with Director, Michael Jewell. I spoke with Michael about his vision for the play, his process and his Company Highway 1 which is staging the production at the well established and highly regarded theatre Company, Malvern Theatre.
Shadowlands by William Nicholson isthe story of C.S. Lewis, and his love affair and subsequent marriage to Joy Gresham. The story could be described as a love story (and has been by some) but could also be perceived as a study of ideals and how these shift and adapt according to the varying stimuli of one’s life. Can you talk about what Shadowlands means to you and why you chose this particular piece to direct?
I saw “Shadowlands” in London in 2008, and fell in love with it. It resonated with me quite deeply – as it has with a lot of people.
I certainly see “Shadowlands” as a love story – but rather than just the story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham and their love, for me it is also the story of Lewis’s love of God; the love between him and his colleagues at Magdalen College; the brotherly love shared between he and Warnie Lewis; and the love he comes to feel for Douglas – Joy’s son.
The real attraction to the piece for me, and the essence of Nicholson’s take on the Lewis/Gresham story is not just how someone’s philosophies and beliefs can be challenged by traumatic life events, but how someone can come to find meaning in them – or, as Lewis puts it, “to find meaning in pain”.
The prologue to act one, ostensibly a ‘talk’ by Lewis, foregrounds the concept of suffering as a gift from God in order to understand life and ‘being loveable’. At the commencement of Act 2, Lewis is struggling to comprehend why a loving God would inflict pain upon those who look to Him – in particular Joy, who is suffering from advanced bone cancer. Later, as Joy moves in to remission and the two are granted more time together, Lewis again struggles – this time with the emotional dichotomy of having more time with Joy, but also knowing that it will only be short.
Joy’s legacy to Lewis, and that which sees him able to survive without her, is the notion that “the pain to come is part of this happiness now – that’s the deal”. There is no separation. It is this which resonated most deeply with me in 2008, is something I have applied in my own life at traumatic times since then, and brings me to direct the piece now.
Apart from that, the writing is poetic and witty; the characters rich and interesting; and the language beautiful.
Shadowlands is being staged at the very well established non professional theatre company Malvern Theatre by your own company Highway 1. Can you talk about how this merger came about?
When I came back from London in early 2008, I decided it was time to create a small company, and start some projects – something I had wanted to do for some time. I directed a production of “Closer” in 2005, and since then have been a big Patrick Marber fan. I read and liked “After Miss Julie” and decided it would be the debut production. I had always been curious about the Malvern Theatre, so I approached the Malvern Theatre Company about using their theatre for the show, and they generously agreed. As the theatre is also their workshop and rehearsal space, they managed to squeeze us in between shows – we bumped in as the last one bumped out, and the next started rehearsals upstairs during our 1 week in the venue. It was tight for them, and we were very grateful for their generosity.
I love the Malvern Theatre – the theatre is cosy and intimate, and the people are fantastic. I approached them early 2010 about co-producing “Shadowlands”. They decided that 2010 was looking pretty full, but it could be the first production in 2011. We discussed the terms of the co-production – and here we are.
Highway 1 was formed by yourself and theatre designer Michael Coe. Can you talk a little about the history, goals and achievements of Highway 1?
The long-term objective for Highway 1 is to tour theatre to regional and rural towns – as the name suggests. It’s a long term goal however, and for the moment we are happy producing shows in Melbourne. This is only our second show, and whilst “After Miss Julie” made it to Bendigo (my old stamping ground), I can’t see “Shadowlands” touring – it’s a bit big!
For me, in these early days of the company, getting show number 2 up is an achievement – especially as it is vastly more involved than the first was. I’d love to get another show up this year; perhaps something a little smaller though, and try and get it out on the road.
Some facets of the set of Shadowlands can be a bit of a challenge. Can you talk about how you approached these set challenges re. preparation time, building time, seeking experts etc?
“Shadowlands” began life as a screenplay, and despite being edited and reworked for theatre, the action still takes place in a number of different locations –a challenge to stage. Fortunately Michael Coe is an experienced designer, and very clever in what he can create. He also has a background in lighting design, so has a solid understanding of how lighting can interact with set to create changes in locale. Travis Hodgson (Lighting and Projection design) has fit beautifully in to the team too, and his lighting plays a huge role is overcoming some of the challenges.
Michael’s design grew concurrently with the rehearsal process. He had an idea of what it would be, but the finer details developed after we saw how the cast interacted and what they brought to the show. Michael wanted to get more depth to the playing space, so we have extended the stage out to the first row of seats. Whilst it does reduce the capacity of the house, it provides greater intimacy for the certain moments in the show, and allows the action to flow as scene changes can be happening during the play. We make no attempt to hide the mechanics of staging the show – one of the dramaturgical aspects of Nicholson’s play is Lewis the storyteller telling his own story, and in that way the cast too are not just characters in the play but facilitators of the story.
We started building the show in November last year, however the majority of the work happened in January – and it was a squeeze to get it done on time. There was a lot involved, and we did require the assistance of some specialist equipment and people to get it done – in some ways we were at the mercy of their schedule.
Shadowlands is in production as we speak. As the director, can you talk about some of the emotions that run through you as you watch the show in this phase?
I experience a wide variety of emotions – from frustration to total pride. As a director you see the project grow over months, you see it at its best, and you see it trip-up. When everyone does well, is happy with their work, and the audience are moved I feel proud to be involved. When things don’t go so well I get frustrated – as anyone involved with the show would.
My belief is that a show is beyond any one person involved in making it – including the Director – so sit back, see where it’s at and try to persuade it to go where you think it needs to go; but don’t invest your emotions in it – not healthy for you or your colleagues.
I must add, even after working on the show for 6 months this show still has the power to make me laugh and tear-up. It’s a powerful piece.
What is your hope that the audience takes with them after viewing the play?
I sincerely hope that they consider the notion that sometimes pain and happiness go hand-in-hand; that’s life. It meant a lot to me, is the main reason why I was attracted to produce the play, and really is a powerful message.
And finally, what is next for yourself and Highway 1?
I do quite a lot of lighting design, and have a couple coming up in the next few months. I used to act quite a lot, but haven’t for a few years, perhaps it’s time to get ‘back on the boards’.
I hope Highway 1 will get another show up this year, maybe two – energy permitting! Michael and I have been discussing a few projects, so we’ll see!
Shadowlands by William Nicholson In association with Highway 1 Theatre CompanyDirected by Michael Jewell. 11th February to 5th March, 2011. Tuesdays to Saturdays 8.15 pm.Saturday Matinee 12th Febraury at 2.00 pm.Sunday Matinee 20th February at 2.00 pm. Sunday Matinee 27th February at 2.00 pm.Gala Night Saturday 19th February at 8.15 pm. Ticket Bookings Phone: 1300 131 552$20.00 (Concession $18.00) – Groups (10 or more) $17.00 per personGala Night $5.00 extra per person
Photos: Richard Annable.