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Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl at Theatro Technis | Review

In her revival of The Gate Theatre’s Dear Elizabeth (which itself is a revival from the 2012 US-based debut), director Ellen McDougall has chosen to add an additional feature to her 2019 staging’s twist on the original Sarah Ruhl epistolary play about the extraordinary three-decade friendship between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert ‘Cal’ Lowell.

Dear Elizabeth - Credit and copyright: Helen Murray.
Dear Elizabeth – Credit and copyright: Helen Murray.

Ruhl’s script is beautiful thanks to it deriving from the real-life correspondence between Bishop and Lowell that spanned from 1947 to 1977 (captured in Words in the Air, published in 2008). Befitting such poets and their own pensées, the play is magnificent in its language. But their letters also reveal the compelling dynamic between them and provide a peek into the post-war writers’ scene. Offering both self-awareness and subtext of ambition, jealousy, mental ill-health and dishy mid-century literary name-dropping (Dylan Thomas referring to A Streetcar Named Desire as ‘The Truck that Fucks’), these letters long to be read aloud and are a pleasure to hear.

McDougall’s first theatrical experiment was to deliver the letters (and some stage directions) to the two poets unseen such that they were reading and reacting to the other poet’s words for the first time – without preparation. Unlike the original 2012 production in which Elizabeth Bishop spoke the words she wrote and Robert Lowell his, in their own voices, McDougall places emphasis on the recipient reading the other’s composition for the first time. Reacting and engaging as the addressee rather than the author gives greater power to the words and takes us to a place of listening rather than speech-making; I think this continues to work well and strengthens the dynamic between them.

However, offering a new, unrehearsed cast for each performance still has its drawbacks which I’m not sure outweigh the benefits of the novelty. As Michael Billington pointed out back in 2019, “Isn’t reproducing nightly the jagged rawness of real-life precisely what actors are trained to do?

As a gimmick, the freshness and scene-study-class jeopardy initially feels intriguing and charming but – with this new run’s added dimension of McDougall also choosing to cast a recent graduate rookie actor opposite a more experienced one – this production’s double jeopardy eventually becomes a missed opportunity for depth and connection with the material. The thrill of the unknown does not compensate for the sacrificed pace of either a tightly rehearsed performance or the repartee of very experienced actors with the improv chops one beholds in, for example, comedians like Tamsin Grieg who was amongst the 2019 cast. Martins Imhangbe (Lowell) and Roberta Livington (Bishop) are both appealing and gutsy performers but neither was experienced enough to move us beyond the director’s schtick and fully immerse us in the story. The added drama and charm of watching them navigate the obstacles of performing unrehearsed eventually became frustrating and turned a 90-minute play into nearly a two-hour one.

There seemed almost something unfair to subjecting these actors to this experiment and calling it live professional theatre. I’d actually like to watch this cast perform the same show again, with the benefit of rehearsal; as a showcase, the skill to behold would be not just their ability to convey freshness as recipients (with the benefit of rehearsal) but also a deepened connection to their own characters. McDougall has commented that this production explores themes of connection that resonate from our experience of the pandemic. The need to connect and be understood is indeed universal and eternal. But I’d argue the Gate’s Artistic Director has misread the collective mood of Autumn 2021. The appetite for compromise and muddling through with admirable pluck has given way to impatience for excellence even in stories about the pear-shaped reality of life.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were two of America’s most brilliant poets. From 1947 – 1977 they wrote over 400 letters to each other; spanning decades, continents and political eras. Their connection was messy and profound, platonic yet romantic, distant and intense. A love that resists easy definition.

Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Ellen McDougall
Designed by Moi Tan
Lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun Sound design by Jon Nicholls
Wednesday 1 to Saturday 18 September 2021
https://www.theatrotechnis.com/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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