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Letters: Nina Bowers and Hannah Ringham – Gate Theatre, Zoom

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Nina Bowers and Hannah Ringham

Directors: Nina Bowers, Yasmin Hafesji, Hannah Ringham and Moi Tran

The need for human connection has been tested in recent months but with so many digital ways to interact with friends and family the art of letter writing seems long forgotten. Yet, the Gate Theatre saw Lockdown as an opportunity to create a piece of theatre in which two people compose and send a missive, and then hear it for the first time live on screen.

Performed via Zoom, Letters is the brainchild of co-directors Nina Bowers, Yasmin Hafesji, Hannah Ringham and Moi Tran with letters sent between Bowers and Ringham explored in this first of eleven shows performed three times a week until early October. Entirely unaware of what will unfold in the next 35-minutes, the participants receive a set of instructions from Hafesji and Tran and a box of props to be opened at salient points during the show.

Technically, Letters is still finding its feet, the “Gallery View” in Zoom means the audience sees both Bowers and Ringham but unless they speak their camera feed doesn’t automatically fill the rest of the screen. Sometimes they both wordlessly hold up cards on which they have been asked to write reactions which are difficult to read and segments which involve physical performance suffer in the same way as both cast members move away from the microphones on their device.

To expand on the letter reading portion of the show – read in two parts – a series of tasks are proposed which both must perform simultaneously. The first is to cover their camera while changing into a costume prescribed for them but after the big reveal what these choices mean is never explained, although both Bowers and Ringham gamely play along with silly wigs and face paint.

Later they create portraits of each other with chalkboards, they annotate cards with their main hope for the future and dance around their rooms proffering plastic flowers into the camera while an (albeit well-chosen) letter-related soundtrack plays including Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours and Please Mr Postman. Ringham and Bowers look like they are having fun but sometimes the experience of letter writing is so personal that no one else can hope to understand all the references.

The reading of the letters themselves is, however, very meaningful and the viewer is given a sense of the value of communication in that moment. Here, Bowers and Ringham purposefully created a time capsule for each other when they sat down to write on 2 May 2020, knowing it would be heard in a public space, but nonetheless capturing the emotions, worries and surroundings that mix their personal experience with that of the country at large.

People have always written to each other in times of great crisis, and whether you read letters home from war or missives sent across Empires and continents, there is something profoundly human about needing a recipient, which Letters connects to. Hearing Bowers and Ringham speak each other’s words about the vivid sounds of the neighbour’s children, the traffic on High Street Kensington and fears for an unwell relative while watching their reactions to these expressions from four months ago is surprisingly touching.

The improvisation aspect of Letters needs to better reflect the experience of writing and reliving the experience of months before but as Letters Live has shown hearing a voice reach out from the past can be hugely affecting. The remaining shows will need to be a little different to create sufficient variety, but the words and their sentiment is really all we need to hear.

Runs here until 20 October 2020

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