You can say what you like about the Burton-Taylor, but they’ve never been afraid to experiment. This term in particular the BT has played host to a series of daring, innovative productions, of which Dear Elizabeth is the latest. A two-hander based on the letters of American poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Dear Elizabeth is an interesting experiment, with a litany of problems which belie just how tricky a play this truly is.
The play consists almost entirely of extracts from the poets’ correspondence, with Elizabeth (Alex Sage) and Robert (Olivia Madin) sat at opposite ends of a table, giving a semblance of real-time interaction to what actually represents years of written communication. The play follows the two of them through their turbulent and eventful lives, with the pair’s occasional meetings in the flesh marked by moments of largely silent visual performance.
If I were to describe Dear Elizabeth in one word it would be static. The two actors rarely leave their positions at the table and when they do there is an air of distinct awkwardness. This is essentially a radio play and Dear Elizabeth never finds a way to marry its heavily textual nature to a dynamic performance.
This is only exacerbated by the play’s length; at an hour and a quarter this is long by BT standards, and the play’s sense of humour consists largely of references to famous twentieth-century writers. Not jokes, mind you: references. The play seems to genuinely believe that saying something along the lines of “I had lunch with William Carlos Williams” counts as a hilarious one-liner, and so it’s hard not to feel that the whole thing is in dire need of a good edit.
But despite all this, there is a good play in here. Sage and Madin are both fantastic, displaying the mixture of egotism and vulnerability characteristic of any writer (ahem). The play explores its main theme – that of loneliness and solitude – in fascinating ways, and milks some beautiful moments out of the basic conceit of having two people sat at the same table and yet unable to see each other. In places, and especially in the second half, it’s downright moving.
At the end of the day, Dear Elizabeth is exactly the kind of difficult, uncompromising drama that student productions should be all about. That it never quite comes together is not as important as the bold-faced nerve required to try it in the first place. I can ultimately recommend Dear Elizabeth; while it doesn’t always work, it is by all means a worthwhile experiment.
Dear Elizabeth is on at the BT Studio until Saturday 13th June, performing at 7.30.