British actor portrays theologian C.S. Lewis in one-man show

ctruman@herald-leader.comApril 4, 2014 

British actor David Payne plays C.S. Lewis in a one-man show about the Narnia author.

COURTESY OF DAVID PAYNE

  • IF YOU GO

    An Evening with C.S. Lewis

    When: 7 p.m. April 8

    Where: Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

    Tickets: $20, $30; $40 for VIP seats, which include a meet-and-greet with actor/author David Payne. Available at Lyric Theater box office, (859) 280-2218 or Lexingtonlyric.tix.com

  • "I remember one day debating a man who called himself a relativist. He concluded his opening remarks with these words: The world does not exist, England does not exist, Oxford does not exist, and I am quite sure I do not exist. And I was asked to reply. So I got up and said how could I possibly reply to a man who's not there?"

    C.S. Lewis, from An Evening With C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis gave us Aslan and The Chronicles of Narnia — and so much more.

Lewis was that rare creature — a blunt, skeptical, funny Christian in an academic world in which faith was looked upon as little more than voodoo with glossier art and fancier literary stylings.

He also had friends in high literary places, among them J.R.R. Tolkien, whom he encouraged to publish The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien at one time intended simply as a private hobby.

The 50th anniversary of Lewis' death was Nov. 22. The British writer died at age 64. The one-man show An Evening With C.S. Lewis is set in the last year of his life, with British actor and author David Payne portraying Lewis.

The conceit of the show is that Lewis is hosting a group of American writers at his home outside Oxford, England. From there, Lewis holds forth about God, conversion, friends, family, war and philosophy. He also talks about his wife, American poet Joy Gresham, whose death from bone cancer four years before his own left him devastated.

During a moment in the play, Lewis recalls a passionate kiss with Joy, and then tells her that he had not kissed a woman like that in 30 years.

"I can tell," she said.

It's a lovely anecdote, but in the course of compiling a one-man show, some liberties are taken with what Lewis and his contemporaries might have said. In a 2013 interview, Payne said that only about 10 percent of the script quotes Lewis' writings, with the rest drawn from anecdotes, letters and stories from his autobiographies.

Lewis' humor is crucial in the performance, Payne said recently during a phone interview.

"That's part of the ambience of the play, that there's a lot of humor in it," he said. "In a way it was a boyish humor. They (the audience) are not coming to see a staid old Oxford professor or a tutor. They're coming to see a man who was so compelling in conversation. He was funny."

Lewis' academic career suffered because of his outspoken Christianity, Payne said. "If you were in Oxford, you just didn't do that."

While the play highlights Lewis' Christianity, Payne said it does not proselytize.

"I don't see the show as an evangelistic project," Payne said. "I see it as a piece of drama. ... It's a very broad-based play that does include how he became a Christian."

Portraying Lewis has been taken on by some of acting's greatest: Anthony Hopkins played him opposite Debra Winger as Gresham in the 1993 movie Shadowlands, and Charles Dance (The Jewel in the Crown) played Lewis in the 2007 play version of Shadowlands.

"People say, 'I saw Anthony Hopkins in the movie,'" Payne said. "I think they accept that, on the stage, that it is different."

A well-meaning audience member once complimented Payne, saying, "I thought you were wonderful in the movie." Payne thanked him and moved on.

He has done more 500 performances of the Lewis show and said no two are the same.

"The audience has its own personality," Payne said. "Every time you do a show you have a new audience. Most will laugh at the same places, most will cry at the same places, but you will never find an audience that is the same. ... Some audiences are more demonstrative than others."

When not onstage, Payne works on behalf of the charity Feed the Children. Financially, he and his wife have sponsored children through various organizations for 40 years.

Payne, 71, said he would keep doing the Lewis show "as long as my body holds out."

"If I keep in good health until I'm 81, I'll probably be performing Lewis until I'm 81. You're looking for artistic challenge."

He admires actors who have taken on the one-man show challenge, among them Christopher Plummer, who won a Tony playing John Barrymore on Broadway in 1997.

"Wherever you see a quality performance ... you don't get jealous," Payne said. "You just say, 'What a great performance that was.'"

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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