Reviews Published 25 January 2019

Review: Dear Elizabeth at the Gate Theatre

17th January - 9th February

‘Dear Jade and Jonjo’: JN Benjamin writes a letter to the performers of Ellen McDougall and Sarah Ruhl’s experimental exploration of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell’s epistolary friendship.

J N Benjamin
Dear Elizabeth at the Gate Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray.

Dear Elizabeth at the Gate Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray.

Dear Jade and Jonjo,

When I was a child, I had a pen pal. Her name was Sarah, she lived in Weston-Super-Mare, and I found her on teletext. Sarah and I wrote to each other for years. That’s when I first discovered the joy of writing and receiving letters. In 2018, I made a new year’s resolution to not only write more letters, but also to deliver them – by hand or by post – to their intended recipient. And so I wrote; to a new friend to congratulate her and her husband on the arrival of a longed for child; to an actor I’d never met but saw in a debbie tucker green play to tell her I thought she was amazing in it; to a former neighbour from that time I lived in California who shares my enthusiasm for putting pen to paper, just because. I wrote a letter to end a whirlwind romance with a man with whom I was deeply, delightfully in love – I sprayed the paper of that one with his favourite perfume of mine. I also wrote to the child I didn’t know I wanted, but never got to hold. That one is unfinished.

Yes, sometimes letters bring sadness and pain, but, I love them. Their intimacy. The romance of them. The artistry of an individual’s handwriting. And so I loved hearing and watching you both read the letters Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell wrote to one another over the course of their friendship. I read somewhere that they wrote more than 400, and wondered if that was 400 each, thus 800. Or 400 between them. I wondered how many years of friendship it would take to write so many letters. I don’t think there were 400 read out last night – I was grateful for that. It made me chuckle when you, Jonjo, said almost two hours is a very long time to be reading letters, and you were right, it was occasionally a bit dull, but I kinda loved that, too. For it wasn’t a carefully curated show of all the best bits of these lives, it was an illustration of those lives as they were lived. Isn’t life, occasionally, a bit dull?

I didn’t know what to expect of Dear Elizabeth. Neither did either of you. You hadn’t rehearsed the piece at all. At all? I thought that was a clever choice from Ellen, and wondered how much of a headache she’d got from trying to figure out the logistics of how to make that work for 25 pairs of actors over the same amount performances. I admired her commitment to her creative vision, and wished there was more space for woman-led non-traditional experimentation in the theatre industry.

I loved it when your surprise at the unexpected was visible on your faces. Jonjo – has anybody ever told you how adorable it is when you wrinkle your nose that way? There were many surprises, which left me feeling quite surprised that the two of you didn’t just corpse your way through the whole thing. That wouldn’t have been unreasonable, some of it was wonderfully silly. That you didn’t, though, meant that I was able to notice the irresistible tone and timbre of your voice, Jade, which had me totally seduced. I also noticed the way Elizabeth’s words seemed to dance in your mouth before making their entrance to the world. Sometimes, when you were talking, I watched Jonjo as he watched you, his gaze fixed, his eyes alluring.

I loved watching the transformation that took place right before our eyes as time rolled on. When you entered the space, the I-don’t-know-what-to-expect-ness of the situation was palpable. There was beauty in your vulnerability. But with each letter you read, you became less Jade and Jonjo, more Elizabeth and Robert. It mirrored what was happening in the text; at first, in salutation and sign off Elizabeth and Robert are to each other Miss Bishop and Mr Lowell. By the end they have pet names for each other and finish their correspondence with the phrase ‘affectionately yours’. I wondered how you managed to create such perfect synchronicity in your performances. I concluded that you both must be a little bit magic.

Yours in adoration,

JN Benjamin

Dear Elizabeth is on at the Gate Theatre until 9th February. More info here

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J N Benjamin

J.N. Benjamin often has opinions about theatre, and sometimes writes about them. Talk to her @reviewsandtings on twitter.

Review: Dear Elizabeth at the Gate Theatre Show Info


Produced by Gate Theatre

Directed by Ellen McDougal

Written by Sarah Ruhl

Cast includes (varies with each performance); Jade Anouka and Jonjo O’Neill on press night.

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