In Sarah Ruhl’s play Dear Elizabeth, Chiasmus Productions have taken on a real challenge. Almost entirely comprised of letters between the great American poets Robert Lowell (played by Olivia Madin) and Elizabeth Bishop (Alex Sage), the play places an enormous burden on the actors playing the two. They have to bring what is essentially a collection of monologues to life.
If the performances at the BT Studio this week are anything like those that I observed in rehearsals, then this is a play that could really be something special. Both Madin and Sage breathed compelling life into the letters, reminding a generation that is so use to the all-so-easy media of Facebook and Skype how difficult – and yet rewarding – the maintenance of a long-distance friendship through letters could be.
Separated by miles in an age in which air travel was still an exotic rarity, Dear Elizabeth shows Lowell and Bishop’s discussions on poetry, mutual acquaintances (Dylan Thomas witty and sweary put-downs, staying in Hemingway’s house) and loneliness. Written by great craftsmen of the English language, however, the letters themselves show immense eloquence and a richness of good humour.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of Ruhl’s play that I could see in rehearsal, however, was less the use of the poets’ letters themselves, but more the meetings between the two that the playwright has imagined. In these meetings because of not despite all that has been said in the letters a gulf has opened up between the two characters in which there is so much to be said that very little can be said.
Instead, this sentiment is explored in beautiful prose in the letters themselves. Whilst taking many of the letters simply verbatim and allowing them to speak, as it were, for themselves via the mouthpiece of the actors, Ruhl’s skill lies in her ability to jump between time and place. Cleverly selecting the correspondence – and poems – that she employs, Ruhl’s play movingly depicts the difficulties of lengthy separation; at one point, Lowell berates Bishop for only finding the time to write a postcard.
In the rehearsal, Madin and Sage sat at opposite ends of a large table – directly facing each other so as to emphasise simultaneously the distance with which they are separated and their closeness in thought and spirit. In many ways, this seems to be the main theme – other than the sheer beauty of some of the letters – that the play seeks to explore: the extent to which a friendship largely formed by letters can be simultaneously close and distant.
In the hands of such a dedicated and convincing cast, this promises to be a gem at the BT Studio that is worth seeing.