‘The Fellowship’ opens to the scene of a dimly-lit back room in an Oxford pub, with the sound effect of fire crackling in the hearth. Seconds later, in rushes the character of C.S. Lewis, beautifully dressed and with a faint air of nervousness about him. He is meeting fellow Oxford graduate Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, and as the latter strides confidently into the room in a flurry of enthusiasm, the audience is at once aware of the differences between the two men. Lewis, a fairly unassuming atheist, finds himself spending several hours with the bold, opinionated and devoutly Catholic Tolkien, yet what may divide them in beliefs is easily bridged with a mutual love of beer and literature.
Inspired by Tolkien’s interest in developing the school’s syllabus, we are immediately pulled into an avid literary debate as their opinions clash jovially. Delving deep into the topics of literary interpretation, the importance of studying mythology, and the bastardisation of language, we hear the duo critique Shakespeare, discuss the relevance of having felt love in order to understand it, and question the divide between children’s and adult literature. In short, a highly intellectual and stimulating discourse.
If this content sounds a little ‘heavy’, don’t be fooled – there are just as many comical interjections to soften the play’s challenging academic edge – in fact, the audience was chuckling from the moment Lewis first stepped on stage. Good-humoured banter, usually on account of Tolkien’s entertaining portrayal as a wind-up-merchant, led way to numerous laugh-out-loud moments.
As the night proceeds, Tolkien and Lewis consume more and more beer (I’d actually like to know if the actors practiced with real beer in every rehearsal to achieve that authentic state of inebriation…?) and the composed discussions evolve into flamboyant acts of physical expression and impassioned dialogue. Though the centre of the stage consists of a table and chairs, the action plays out around it in lively fashion, ranging from wild gesticulations on chairs, to a mock battle scene involving an umbrella and a walking stick. The dense script is skilfully neutralised with well-paced choreography and engaging projection from both actors.
It was fascinating to be a fly on the wall, observing an interpretation of a friendship that existed many years ago. Indeed, throughout the play, we witness the writers inspire and influence one another’s work (without knowing the historical impact these ideas would one day have), such as when Tolkien mentions the prospect of an almighty lion to the anthropomorphism-loving Lewis, generating the first molecules of Aslan within his mind. It is in this way that the dialogue communicates more than just words to its omniscient audience, inviting us to emotionally connect with the writers’ imaginations, and to see the building blocks of the worlds we would one day fall in love with gradually mature.
‘The Fellowship’ succeeds in combing out the intricacies of Narnia and Middle Earth’s creators, thoroughly humanising both men by exposing personal anecdotes and a captivating shared affection for fantasy and adventure. Alex Appleby (Lewis) and Henry Wyrley-Birch (Tolkien) form an extremely successful collaboration as two highly accomplished actors, both of whom held a detailed understanding – and what came across as genuine enthusiasm – for the subject matter of which they were dealing, with an undeniably rapturous stage presence.
In one of the last scenes, we are plunged into darkness except for a dully-lit street lamp, and join the two men as they stand overlooking a river. In this rather ethereal moment, a sudden change in atmosphere from their raucous conversation in the pub, the play appeals to a new level of audience engagement. As Tolkien teaches Lewis how to become at one with nature, the audience is invited to experience the meditative state in which Tolkien claims to be the starting point of creative brilliance, transporting us from mere observers to participants. It is at this point that all of the different elements of ‘The Fellowship’ – actors, script, set and effects – make a profound emotional impact upon its viewers.
I found the script to be nothing short of a linguistic masterpiece. Narnia and Middle earth fans would revel in this hour-hour opportunity to meet their visionaries, and additionally, if you’re a fan of fantasy, mythology, philosophy, or just literature in general, there is an abundance of material for you to delight in.
An exquisite production penned by a skilled wordsmith and a highly talented team both on and backstage, I implore HodgsonCreed Productions to keep producing more of the same. Bravo.
Reviewed by Laura Evans