Liz White finds herself getting to grips with a rich and fascinating character in Joy Gresham, the vivid, expressive, New York poet who shared her final years with C S Lewis.
The play is Shadowlands and it runs on the main-house stage at Chichester Festival Theatre from April 26-May 25, with Hugh Bonneville as Lewis to Liz’s Joy.
“The material is so rich and heart-breaking and poetic and it is a really, really lovely company to work with,” says Liz, who is perhaps best known for her role as Annie Cartwright in the TV drama Life on Mars (2006 and 2007).
“The company are a wonderful bunch of people and (director) Rachel (Kavanaugh) has created a very safe and comfortable room in which to work.
“Joy is a very big role and it is a very big undertaking to search out exactly what this relationship is that they have. It started off essentially that it has got to be a platonic relationship. No one actually says it, but C S Lewis is a bachelor and Joy was a married woman when they met. She gets divorced during the course of the show and that means that she can’t marry anyone else in the eyes of God. They are both Christian and in that sense there is nothing to be gained from them being together.”
But then they begin to fall for each other.
“She knew him well before they met. It was his writing that made her take further steps into the Christian faith. Before that, she was an atheist and she had a bit of an epiphany and came across Lewis’ writing and developed a real appetite for all of his literature.
“By the time they came to meet, not only had she had that literary history with him but she had been writing to him from America. She proposes to meet, but I don’t think there were any ideas at all that she wanted a romantic relationship or even a platonic relationship.
“There was so much information about C S Lewis, but she was a celebrated writer in her own field. As she says in the play, she won a national poetry award. She had her first poem published when she was 14 and she had an MA by the time she was 19. And people do still read her works. They are still published.
“C S Lewis was a very, very popular writer and she would obviously never reach his level of sales and, as so happens in a relationship, the male supersedes the female.”
The mythology goes that she was feisty. But Liz will have none of it.
“People say she was feisty because it was she that wrote to him, but would people be calling Lewis feisty if he had written to her first? It is pure discrimination based on gender. It would be so wrong to say that she was not behaving somehow because she was opinionated and forthright.”
As Liz says, the fact is: “Lewis adored her company even before they were romantically involved. I don’t know whether he had been afraid of relationships before and had used his religion as a barrier and I am sure playwright Bill Nicholson would encourage us to explore the subtexts that were going on, but he adored her because of her directness.
“And you have got to remember that the other people there were all Oxford or Oxbridge dons and for some of them probably the only woman they ever connected with was their mother. But Joy is direct and I wouldn’t find a problem with people for being direct and strong … and those are not qualities that should be allowed only to men.”
Tickets from Chichester Festival Theatre.