Dear Elizabeth – The Gate @ Theatro Technis, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Sarah Ruhl

Director: Ellen McDougall

Poetry changed forever when Robert Lowell published Life Studies in 1959. He mined his marriage as a subject for his verse; he discussed his family in prose poems and bravely wrote about his mental illness. Throughput most of his adult life he kept up a faithful correspondence with another one of the so-called ‘confessional poets’: Elizabeth Bishop. A precise wordsmith, she firmly drew the line between fiction and fact. Dear Elizabeth restages their letters to devastating effect.

In this production, first seen at The Gate in 2019, director Ellen McDougall captures the journey of two strangers becoming friends by having different actors play the roles of Lowell and Bishop each night. They have not read the script and nor have they met each other before. It adds a sweet vulnerability to the piece, harnessing the initial awkwardness of the poets in their early correspondence. At first, she addresses him as Mr Lowell until he requests she call him by his nickname Cal, which is not, he continues, short for Caligula or Caliban.

The two rarely meet in real life, and so this really is a friendship forged in letters. The epistles are affectionate to the point that it seems as if they may get together. However, she’s never eager to pin down a date and he’s always getting married to other women. The will they/won’t they aspect of Dear Elizabeth is nicely played, even if one does know the outcome. In the late 1940s he meets his second wife, but by the late 50s the marriage seems loveless as described in his crushing ‘Man and Wife’. Bishop is now in Brazil with a female lover.

Writer Sarah Ruhl has carefully edited the letters and even though the actors open envelopes and turn over sheets of paper, their communication feels more like a conversation, helped by the fact the actors face each other from across white desks. And with only their letters in front of them, the actors never know what the other will say.

The letters, chatty, honest, and funny at times, would be enough to keep an audience entertained but McDougall gives the actors other tasks too, such as staging a picnic, or setting up Bishop’s side of the performance space so it looks like Brazil. These mini-assignments may be silly at times, but it reveals an openness to the piece, as the actors, defenceless to stage directions, get to know each other a little better. The rapport growing between the two actors means that darker material in the show’s later parts is more poignantly played.

At press night, Roberta Livingston is a no-nonsense Bishop, and when the poet writes that she suffers from shyness, it would seem that she is exaggerating or making excuses for the cancelled meetings between her and Lowell. Livingston’s Bishop is stronger than her words, and her feelings for Lowell shift into almost maternal patience by the end. Her Bishop is unshockable.

It would be good to heap similar praise on Martins Imhangbe but unfortunately for one section of the audience, only his back is seen. The set design means that only the audience sat square in the middle can see both actors clearly; for the other two sections, only one face is visible. Imhangbe’s seems an animated Lowell, gesticulating a good deal at first, and excited about his marriages. It’s a shame that one side of the audience never sees his reactions to what Bishop is saying, and this staging ruins, for some, what would be a five star show. Still, when Imhangbe shifts in his seat to read the last part of Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’, this side of the audience is transfixed.

Runs until 18 September 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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