Tuesday 15th September 2020
Dear Nina Bowers, dear Hannah Ringham,
It’s nice to write an Exeunt review again. Nice to be handed the gift of an absolutely classic Exeunt format, a letter to a show called Letters. Cheers for that. Nice nice nice.
It’s hard writing letters, actually, isn’t it? No-one really does it nowadays. Just send an email, or a Whatsapp. Or have a Zoom meeting. The days of the great letter-writers are over. No offence, Hannah. No offence, Nina. But Letters probably loses out when you compare it to the Gate’s related production of Dear Elizabeth, where two different actors every night read Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell’s letters to each other. You know that production, both of you, because you were involved in it, as were your co-directors on Letters. So you know that Bishop and Lowell were of an epistolary generation, shall we call it, and we – the three of us – are of the email generation, the Whatsapp generation. In the vanguard of the Zoom generation. We communicate differently. And that’s OK, but it does mean that our letters might sound a bit lacklustre when you compare them to the letters of two great American poets of the twentieth century.
It’s hard, I know. Especially because there wasn’t much to say in a letter written in early May 2020. You had barely left the house for over a month, one of you in Walthamstow, the other in Kensington. There are only the old dull emotions to cycle through – I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel frustrated, I feel like I’ve lost my sense of myself – and the weather outside your window to comment on. Rain, sun, cloud. I don’t know what I was expecting – I don’t know what you were expecting, when you finally read each others’ letters over Zoom last night – but there weren’t any massive, meaningful revelations. Just the small, horrible doubts and fears and boredom that were so common in early May. Rain, sun, cloud.
I liked the way you and your co-directors (Yasmin Hafesji, Moi Tran and Ellen McDougall) designed and dressed up the occasion, though. I liked the naturalness of your surprise as you put on the costumes and pulled out the props you were seeing for the first time. Balloons, roses, bubbles. Nina, I was glad you felt “sexy like Prince” in your purple jacket, with your thin moustache and your pearls. Hannah, the blonde wig suited you and the gold face-paint made you glitter. I don’t know what purpose those costumes served with reference to the letters you had written. It seemed a bit silly, a bit arbitrary. But then, they did help to lift you beyond the backdrop of your living rooms and into an old world – of the theatre, darling, of old-fashioned entertainment, of the poppy pastel colours of loads of Gate productions last year. I appreciated that.
You sent each other poems with your letters. I wonder whether all the other actors who perform Letters will send the same poems, or whether you all made your own choices? Hannah, watching you listen to Nina reading ‘The Fish‘ (by our old epistolary friend Elizabeth Bishop) was a lovely moment in the show. Nina read it exactly right, didn’t she? It’s a poem that would refuse to work if you tried to declaim it. You just have to read it like words.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
Bishop must have known how that kind of precise, exacting observation can feel like a victory over ephemerality and passing time. She can let the fish go once she’s looked at it like that, once she’s written about it like that, because she’s caught it anyway.
Maybe that’s what people writing letters in strange times are trying to do: to win over the time by writing it down, by taking its measure, by observing and describing it to a stranger or a friend. It’s just that writing about lockdown can be a tough fight against banality. Against the grey weather, against our own boring selves, against the bureaucratic Zoom interface, against descriptive words like ‘nice’ and ‘hard’, against the same topics of conversation over and over again. The night I watched it, however hard you tried, Letters never quite became rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. But I like the idea that other actors will keep trying for the rest of the run, writing and reading the year to each other, with balloons and roses and other colourful things.
All my best,
Letters is on at Gate Theatre until 7th October. More info and tickets here.