One thousand people holding their breath in a theatre, knowing what was going to happen, but unable to move because of the incredible tension that had been built. Around me, I could hear others trying to stifle sniffles, just as I was, as the conclusion to Shadowlands drew closer.
Shadowlands, a 1985 TV drama, developed into a play, written by William Nicholson, shared the period of C S Lewis’ life when he encountered Joy Gresham, in 1952.
The programme outline written by A N Wilson, Lewis’ biographer, shared the earlier life experience of CS and his brother Warnie (Warren). Their mother dying of cancer when CS was nine, meant that he and Warnie were sent to an English boarding school, away from their Irish home. The undercurrent of that earlier, unaddressed issue, became a thread through the story; the small boys who spent their adult lives as bachelors, limited in their ability to relate to women.
Joy Gresham, an American with whom CS Lewis corresponded as a dedicated fan of his writing, arrived in the UK on an unexpected visit, with one of her children, Douglas. Their capacity to discuss and challenge each other led to a deep friendship and CS Lewis, having secured British citizenship for Joy by a marriage of convenience, eventually realising the capacity to love another. This was precipitated by Joy, having developed bone cancer, collapsing and CS realising that he might lose her in the same way as he lost his mother.
After hospital, Joy moved into CS Lewis home, with Douglas, supported by Warnie, so a form of normality was supported for a while.
Remission was followed by terminal decline, CS facing his loss, becoming aware of the impact on Douglas, having been in the same place. CS also facing the greatest challenge to his life-long faith and beliefs.
The inevitable happened, with a very powerful display of personal grief. Hugh Bonneville and Liz White sustained their characters through every possible emotion.
It is an exceptional play, on many levels; well written, well directed and acted, in a simple set that adds to the whole without distraction. It also holds many unstated truths, as it records the real lives of so many people. Love and loss are not uncommon situations.
I recalled my mother leaving the family home when I was 12 and the death of my first wife from cancer, both events creating their own distinct grieving. Many people carry their personal griefs without any outward sign to alert others, who are busy getting on with their own lives. We “get on with life”. Sometimes it takes an external event to enable us to externalise our feelings, but, when the lights go up, we revert to our “holding it together for others” demeanour; we can’t impose on others.
Twelve hours later, the sensations of the evening are still vivid. Shadowlands, running at Chichester Festival Theatre as a part of the summer season, is a “must see”, but take your hankies…