THEMUSICAL PLAY PRODUCED THE PRODUCED
Shadowlands recently enjoyed a hugely successful West End revival bringing the touching tale of C S Lewis and Joy Davidman back into the limelight. Patricia Richardson discusses her recent production of the hit play by William Nicholson at the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club. Introduction
Although a huge challenge for any theatre group – if you have two strong actors for the leads and no shortage of men, then this production is well worth thinking about. It is a very rich and wonderful play with a good deal of carefully placed humour to perfectly balance the seriousness and pain in the latter half of the play. This is a powerful piece of theatre, and when we made the decision to stage the play I had no idea of the profound effect it would have on us, not just for the cast and crew, but for our patrons who came to see the production. Seldom have I sat in a theatre and felt such an intensity of feeling.
Plot and Casting
It is set in academic Oxford in the 1950’s and follows the story of the shy Oxford don and children’s author, C S Lewis and American poet Joy Davidman from their initial correspondence and
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first meeting, through to the illness and finally the death of Joy towards the end of the play. When originally produced it was staged with 7 men, 2 women and a boy – with some doubling of the smaller characters. As we have a very active Theatre Workshop for new members with little experience, I decided to use some of these members to play the smaller roles and extras, giving myself a cast of 15 in total – 10 men and 5 women. The casting of C S Lewis and Joy is central to the production as it is their story and we need to see their growing relationship and to see Lewis changing before our eyes and falling in love with Joy despite his initial resistance. The part of Joy is hugely challenging as it is a multifaceted character with a massive range. The hospital scenes with Lewis and the final death scenes needed to be handled with great sensitivity. There are some very interesting and contrasting roles for men and we worked a great
deal on the relationships between them and with Joy. A young boy is required for Joy’s son Douglas, who needs to be eight. I was very fortunate in having a young actor who was in fact ten, but he was quite small for his age and looked eight. Because of the subject matter this was a very demanding part for him, and he also needed an American accent. The relationship between Lewis and Warnie is vital to the play as with his relationship with Joy and Douglas which changes as the play progresses.
As we have our own 95 seat theatre with comfortable seating and raked auditorium we are able to rehearse on the stage from the start of rehearsals, and the set is being created around us as we progress. We rehearsed the play over six weeks, with three rehearsals during the week
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THE PLAY PRODUCED basis of our set, giving the impression of venerable collegiate antiquity required for the scenes set in Magdelen College, and also sympathetic to C S Lewis’s description of his home – The Midden! The challenge of a multiplicity of scenes quickly changed, with no wings or storage space, meant a naturalistic set was impractical; a few areas were defined with flattage and a raised rostrum upstage to break things up, with minimal architectural features for visual variety courtesy of our skilled stage director Glan. Beautiful toning furniture and dressing from our expert Margaret fleshed out each area as required. A three colour blend on all the downstage exposed areas of flattage used two similar shades of a colour somewhere between grey and lilac, one warm toned, one cool, defined with black shading in an effort to convey the idea of shadows all around, enhanced by Alastair’s superb lighting. Magdelen College remained sombre grey. Some symbolic touches - a menu from the hotel where Joy meets Jack, and a Greek holiday advertisement were placed on a revolving flat downstage right.
and also on a Sunday afternoon. The Sunday rehearsals worked well for us and we were able to achieve a great deal during this time. I segmented the rehearsals calling only the actors I intended to work with. As the play is made up of a great number of short scenes we worked on all the scenes with ‘the dons’ or Lewis/Warnie Lewis/Joy etc. This way we had the freedom to work in depth with these actors and get the greatest amount of work done. I also tried to work on all the Douglas scenes on a Sunday to prevent him having late night rehearsals. By week four I was ready to start to put the play together and by then we could see the results of the in-depth work we had done and our technical team were coming in to add the lighting and sound. As there are a great number of small scenes my original thoughts about the
production were that from the opening of the play I wanted the whole thing to swirl in and out of the scenes with no delay, using extra characters to set or strike any furniture that might be required for that scene without delaying the action. I had allocated areas for various locations and on a rostra at the back centre left had set the University Dining Hall and in front of it downstage had The Kilns set throughout. During the interval I had two nurses and two extras as porters to strike the Kilns and set the Hospital Room. We have no curtains in the theatre so in order for the audience not to see Joy in bed from the opening of Act 11 we used hospital screens which were then replaced when we wanted to shield Joy from view.
Set and Scenery - Vicci Johnson
The wooden floor already in situ from previous productions, and worn to a lovely patina, was decided on as the
The wardrobe was the biggest challenge due to space restrictions, and it felt important to create a striking contrast between the Shadowlands where the adults were involved in their tragedies, and the fantasy world that Douglas could see beyond the doors. The wardrobe was almost invisible, painted the same colour as the back wall giving an impression of panelling, while inside was painted bright white, dressed with sparkling fabric, accessorised with white twigs and branches, giant snow flakes, glittered holly and similar - hurrah for Christmas looming! Special effects of lighting and smoke machine completed the magic, judging by the audience’s gratifying gasps each night!
Lighting – Alastair Griffiths
The play demands lighting for some 36 different scenes in 14 locations ranging from an Oxford College to a Greek island at varying times of the day and night and to meeting the different emotional moods as the play progresses. With our small stage and a limited stock of equipment this created an interesting challenge. The approach revolved around a careful balance between – colours, direction/ angle of the lighting and cue timing. The basic common foundation across all areas in a basic warm cover (152/173) onto which colour washes and specials could be overlaid at various angles. For example the same stage area was used for the Kiln’s living room and the hospital
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THE PLAY PRODUCED area; with careful balancing of the basic cover and a cool wash the desired hospital feel was created. A key effect is the illusion of Narnia to be created inside the wardrobe whose doors magically open; a corridor of white light leading to the wardrobe was achieved with a couple of carefully focused profile backlights with the inside lit with a single PAR downlight and a touch of smoke, the contrast to the basic cover ensuring the necessary wow factor. Finally the timing of cues was paramount to ensure the scenes flowed seamlessly and the desired drama is achieved as Joy finally dies. Getting this timing right involved close coordination between the lighting designer, operator and cast.
Costumes – Sue Helps
This is a period piece set in the 50’s and as we have an extensive wardrobe at the club we were able to dress the whole production from the contents, with the exception of one or two pieces that we were loaned. The only clothes we needed to hire were for Douglas as he needed to look right for the period. Shoes were a problem for him too – but a very lucky find in a charity shop gave us just what we wanted in a pair of black lace ups. We needed well lived-in clothes for Lewis and Warnie and for Joy we had a selection of genuine fifties costumes that were ideal. As our Lewis was slightly on the young side I settled on some tortoiseshell spectacles and a period hairstyle that aged him sufficiently rather than go for an aging makeup as our audiences are very close.
Sound - Gary Hayton
This production took place on a fairly small stage so the main function of the sound design was to tell the audience the story location of scenes. However, this did not preclude sound cues from contributing other functions of stage sound, such as setting the period of the play, giving information about a character and setting an emotional tone.
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The end time of sound cues was considered as important as the start time, for example by continuing the offstage music cue, which served to set the hotel tearoom scene where the Lewis brothers first meet Joy, until a little after Joy’s entrance, (where it stops), we subtly suggested that this woman is going to change the Lewis brothers’ world. Music was chosen mostly for its emotional content in this production, although referential music was used as well. Two music cues were specifically written by the sound designer for the production, (Gary Hayton). These were for Douglas’ interaction with the magic wardrobe. The music here was intended to give a feeling of magical wonder and to draw Douglas to the wardrobe. The second time this is heard, it is an underscore to the marriage of Jack and Joy in the hospital, so the music needed to be arranged in such a way that it did not distract form the dialogue. The overall sound design of Shadowlands was quite subtle, which worked well with the strong performances of the actors.
Furniture and Props Margaret Eaton
As we are able to work on the stage from the start of rehearsals it is possible to have the correct furniture as soon as it has been decided on. We were fortunate in having a wonderful refectory table in our store at the theatre which worked as a base for the University Dining Hall for the men to sit around. This was set on rostra and with cut glass decanters and glassware it looked very impressive, and we also had a set of solid chairs to go with it. This table was doubled up for the Registrar’s office, when it was swiftly brought down centre by two characters as we went into the scene. For The Kilns we used two small wing armchairs and a bureau desk with an old desk chair. The space was very limited
so we had to create the right atmosphere and get the required effect. In Act 11 a Hospital Bed is necessary and we were indeed fortunate that our props lady had a 1950’s hospital bed in her garage just waiting to be used. With hospital screens that we were able to borrow – The Kilns became The Hospital Room. We have a brilliant props lady and as with the rest of the play we were meticulous about making sure that all the props had the period feel about them. We were even lent a 1950’s Stethoscope for our Doctor.
For the characters of Joy and Douglas it was necessary to have an American accent, but this did not present too much of a problem. For us, with the small stage we have to work on with no wing space – we had created up right a flat with a curtain at the side of it, making a loading bay for all the small furniture used for the various scenes. It took enormous skill in setting and storing all of this in order for it to be accessed when required and returned in complete and utter silence. It was also an entrance for the actors which further complicated matters. During Act 11 when the Hospital Room reverted to The Kilns – I made the decision to press the pause button on the play while my nurses and porters changed the set. This I covered with music and it was done swiftly and without any delay to the production. Provided you have a dedicated team who are all working to the same ends, then any difficulty can be overcome and this will indeed be a more than worthwhile production to take on. Thank you William Nicholson for writing such a masterpiece.
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