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Dear Elizabeth – Gate Theatre, London

Writer: Sarah Rhul

Director: Ellen McDougall

Reviewer: Paul Hegarty

Dear Elizabeth, based on Sarah Rhul’s script of original letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell – the play relating the couple’s long-term friendship – was performed in a traverse arrangement and ran continuously for ninety minutes or so. Two desks sat opposite each other, some distance apart, and two performers were placed behind them, scripts in hand. 

McDougall decided not to rehearse the play and subsequently asked two different guest performers to perform the show each night, encountering the letters for the first time. For this reason, the scripts also included a range of stage directions. The result is fractured storytelling with the continuous interruptions of emotional dynamics, not to say sense. Some lines were tripped over or mispronounced, eyes darted to unfamiliar stage directions and with sneers and smirks the facial expressions commented on what was read.

The two writers, in this instance both played by actresses, communicated through a series of letters, discovering a friendship, an attraction and near intimacy, as well as a professional understanding. The nuances of such a correspondence were lost on this ham-fisted approach that lacked honesty.

If the idea was to keep the material fresh then it lacked control and direction and if it was to entertain then it fell short of the mark. Like a game show, lines were written on props, with new bits of script theatrically appearing from behind curtains. Performers read off the backs of bottles, boxes or loosed leaf paper resulting in the piece lacking the fun or honesty engendered in a light entertainment piece.

Character was not developed; lines tended to be short, without shape or shade and when there was a longer piece to read eyes were downcast excluding both the audience and the other character. It was naive to think the audience could not have imagined all types of people to have similar relationships, particularly in the days of texting and Snapchat and so the cross-gender casting was unnecessary and brought a shallow quality to the piece as it did little to illustrate a twenty-odd year relationship.

Phoebe Fox as Elizabeth, with her Radio 4 warm Book at Bedtime vocal tones read her script with some clarity but with little emotional investment or intention and her fellow actress, Nina Bowers, playing Cal seemed constantly surprised. McDougall suggested in her notes that she was after a sense of life as it is lived where twists and turns and consequences are not anticipated, but what she got was a mishmash of intentions, a lack of focus and, I suspect, performers taking refuge in their default positions for security.

It should be said the sound scape designed by Jon Nicholls was atmospheric and helped fill the emotional voids as it directed the audience as to what to feel. The traverse style of production meant it was difficult to watch both actresses so observing their relationship was near impossible resulting in more of an auditory experience. All in all, not something this reviewer would suggest you run along to, or at least wait a while until it is on the radio.

Runs until 9 February 2019 | Image: Contributed

Writer: Sarah Rhul Director: Ellen McDougall Reviewer: Paul Hegarty Dear Elizabeth, based on Sarah Rhul’s script of original letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell - the play relating the couple’s long-term friendship - was performed in a traverse arrangement and ran continuously for ninety minutes or so. Two desks sat opposite each other, some distance apart, and two performers were placed behind them, scripts in hand.  McDougall decided not to rehearse the play and subsequently asked two different guest performers to perform the show each night, encountering the letters for the first time. For this reason, the scripts also…

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