Review: Dear Elizabeth, Gate Theatre

An initiative full of love, passion and regret.

Dear Elizabeth, written by Sarah Ruhl, follows the lives of renowned poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowe, through the 500 pages of poems and extracts they sent to one another over 40+ years. Ellen McDougall’s simple yet effective direction of two actors, chairs, lamps and desks, leaves the story entirely down to the storytelling through the ability of the actors to bring the poems and intricate wit of the letters off the page and into an interesting story full of love, passion and regret.

The most exciting element to this production is the fresh and exciting unknown. The two performers who have been exposed and passionately volunteered to share the poems of Lowe and Bishop, have not seen the text before and neither have they rehearsed – giving huge kudos to the creative team: Associate Director Anthony Simpson-Pike, Producer Jenny Pearce, Designer Moi Tran, Sound Designer Jon Nicholls, Lighting Designer Jessica Hun Hang Yun and Assistant Director Yasmin Hafesji. The entire team control the actors through instructions planted on various props such as wine bottles or picnic baskets etc. Despite not having the budget of some of the bigger productions and theatres, this piece is entertaining, innovative and a great chance to watch skills used by the actors that are very rarely seen in the UK.

The two actors for the performance I attended were Jade Anouka and Jonjo O’Neill who creatively lifted the text off the page and kept us engaged for a good 80 minutes. Anouka’s site reading was slightly tentative due to nerves, the intimate playing space and adjusting to this uncommon skill. O’Neill’s voice and articulation work is clear and crisp, making it easy to listen to and follow the letters from Lowe. Both actors had moments of really touching storytelling. Anouka’s representation of Bishop’s surprise and covering-up her struggle with Lowe’s developing relationships and family is a moment of genuine empathy. Similarly, O’Neill’s empathetic and strong supportive poem after the loss of Bishop’s maid is extremely powerful and all whilst site reading!

Without reviewing the actors too much as they change from performance to performance, the concept behind this piece really deserves a high mark for creating a platform for the actors and the audience to explore and discover the work of Bishop and Lowe together. The design and execution of the piece from the creatives is new, exciting, innovative and doesn’t require the biggest budget, but instead is produced due to the imagination and hard work of the entire team involved and is a credit to all the theatres that deserve more support.

Dear Elizabeth is playing Gate Theatre until 9 February. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website.