Created by: Jamie Byng
Director: Sam Hunter
Reviewer: Deborah Parry
It is safe to say that the art of letter writing, certainly when done by hand, is heading in the direction of extinction. The way that we communicate with one another is constantly evolving; we’re far more likely to send Whatsapp messages to a loved one than two heartfelt pages of A4 and yet there is something about the latter that feels so much more connective, more human.
Letters Live is an initiative really, that was started in 2013 by two book publishers with the hope of reminding us of the beauty that can exist when pen is put to paper and, as the title suggests, for us to rediscover the art of letter writing. It is easy to think of it more like a museum exhibition than a performance, though. Despite having a high-profile and talented cast of actors (and media personalities), there is something very non-theatrical about listening to letters being read out – no matter how animated or expressive the reader is.
When you book a ticket to Letters Live, as it reminds us in the programme, you arrive not knowing what you will hear, or who will be reading – which actually adds to the experience, rather than detracts. As with the truth of receiving a letter, we never quite know what lies beyond the envelope – this is a voyage of discovery. To help us navigate through the piece, though, a voice over gives us a brief introduction before each is read out. If you are a fan of celebrity culture (there’s no shame in it) then you’ll be spoiled, with names such as Jude Law, Edith Bowman, Omid Djalili, Julian Clary and Michael Palin but a few metres away.
We begin by being serenaded by singer-songwriter Kelvin Jones, and a bit of audience participation – as he asks us to join in with the chorus of his song Even Now – then the readings begin. There are letters of complaint – John Peel’s rant to the controller of BBC Radio 1 in 1996, when his programme was to be shortened to accommodate a drum ‘n’ base show. A rather amusing piece of correspondence from a Beatles’ fan to Nike, who disapproved of the Fab Four’s music being used in an advert and lovingly signs off with ‘Thank you, and I hope you choke’. Then a standout and poignant one – as we sit in silence and listen to actor Charlie Heaton read 17-year-old Pinchas Eisner’s farewell to his brother Mordechai written in 1944, as the Nazis round up Jewish people for extermination in Budapest. Charlie Heaton expresses the pathos passionately and could be forgiven for welling up when retorting the lines “You said that if I die, you will kill yourself. Think of what I told you, that if you stay alive, I will live on within you”.
There is something slightly voyeuristic about hearing private letters, most of which were never meant to be privy to the public at large – but, like many historical documents, preserving and sharing them gives us insight that we might, otherwise, never really have known. Perhaps it is unnecessary to hear them spoken out loud and to truly connect we need to see them on the page, but if Letters Live inspires us to continue the tradition of communicating in this form then its true purpose is a catalyst, rather than needing to be the world’s greatest performance experience – and that in itself is worthy of praise.