Letters at the Gate Theatre
Letter writing is an art form in its own right. Throughout history there have been a few notably brilliant figures to master the medium – Hemingway, Hannah Arendt, Van Gogh to his brother; or, if you’re feeling daring, Joyce to his wife. Letters are by their very nature intimate, intended for one (or just a few) recipients; they are intensely personal, often created in one sitting and thus prone to explore the themes of whatever is occupying the author’s mind at the time.
To deliver them as a piece of theatre is unusual, but Gate Theatre’s 2019 production of Dear Elizabeth was based on that premise, performing Elizabeth Bishop’s and Robert Lowell’s correspondence – with some critical success. The follow-up show Letters, created as a response to the coronavirus lockdown, takes the whole concept a step further.
Rather than reading out the letters of famous writers, the performers recite messages which they prepared for each other several months ago, unrehearsed, in front of a live audience on Zoom.
What possibly sounds like a neat idea – though perhaps better for an exchange in private rather than as a live show in front of an audience – unfortunately quickly reveals several issues. The unrehearsed performance contains awkward pauses in which the actors are opening and reading the letters, and some of the additional activities that they are asked to do – such as dressing up, drawing or dancing – lead to yet more cringey moments.
On top of this, the writing itself just isn’t that great. It’s no fault of the actors; people just don’t send letters anymore – at least not very frequently – so it’s awkward more often than not, offering little more than random observations with nothing to tie them together other than the boredom of lockdown. Of course, it will be different each evening as the cast are constantly changing, but there’s only so much one can do with a bad premise.
In fact, it is only the actors’ performances which make Letters somewhat tolerable – they know it’s silly, they smile a lot and take it with two handfuls of salt, so at least you know it’s not too embarrassing for them. They are also asked to perform their favourite poems, which does add a nice touch, despite the emptiness of the rest of the show.
Letters is at the Gate Theatre from 14th September until 7th October 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.