The warmth, wit, and charm of C.S. Lewis was on full display in Saturday night’s performance of An Evening with C.S. Lewis,at Yavapai College’s Performance Hall. A full house welcomed British actor and writer, David Payne, who brought the famous Christian writer and lay theologian to life on the stage in a performance of great power and sensitivity.
C.S. Lewis is best remembered for his children’s books, the Narnia series, which have sold over 100 million copies since their publication beginning in 1949, and which have also been dramatized in plays, movies, and TV. But he is also the author of over 30 books ranging from science fiction, The Space Trilogy,to academic works on medieval history, and many works of lay theology, most notably,Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters and his personal memoir of his conversion experience, Surprised by Joy. Many of Lewis’s writings were allegorical in nature and explored themes of faith and Christianity. His best known titles remain in print.
British actor David Payne based his award-winning performance of C.S. Lewis, on quotations from his published works and well known anecdotes about his life, delivered in an informal, conversational style. In life, Lewis was known as a wit and story teller, with a decided knack for the epigrammatic turn of phrase. He had a gift for making complex questions of theology accessible to the lay reader. His writing style, which was often light and conversational in tone even when dealing with deep issues of faith and theology, lent itself to this approach. The evening’s performance was staged as a conversation between Lewis and a group of American students visiting his Oxford home. This allowed the actor to portray the modesty and informality of the famous writer in a setting of warmth and intimacy.
David Payne has his own story as a writer and actor. In an interview before the show, he marveled at the circumstances that launched his career as a writer and actor. He came to the stage in mid-life when he answered to an audition by a Nashville theater company for someone with a British accent. Hoping for a minor part, he was stunned when given the lead of C.S. Lewis, in a production of Shadowlands, an earlier treatment of Lewis’s life and writings. Since that twist of fate many years ago, Mr. Payne has delivered over 800 performances of C.S. Lewis. He has also written and performed other shows dealing with various aspects of Lewis’s life and letters, including Mist in the Morning and Weep for Joy. As a performer, Mr. Payne is a brilliant illusionist. Watching him onstage one has the impression that the actor has embodied his subject and become C.S. Lewis.
Many local churches promoted the event and Prescott’s faith community was well represented in the audience. In a time when secular values are in the ascendant in American popular culture, Mr. Payne’s performance did not play down Lewis’s Christianity. After losing his faith as an adolescent, Lewis rediscovered his faith as an adult and remained an unapologetic Christian and practicing Anglican for the remainder of his life. He attributed his conversion to his fellow Oxford don and writer, J.R.R. Tolkein, an ardent Catholic, with whom Lewis maintained a close, lifelong friendship. An Evening with C.S. Lewis was as much a testimony to the life of one of the great writers of our time, as it was an introduction to the talent and great spirit of an inspiring actor, David Payne. Those lucky enough to be in the audience Saturday night can hope that he returns, and brings C.S. Lewis with him.