If ever a show deserved to be written about exclusively in the present tense, it is the Gate’s Dear Elizabeth. A love letter to the concept of live theatre, the production is unapologetically quirky and alive, while still presenting a meaningful exploration of human kinship.
Conceptually ambitious, each night, Dear Elizabeth stars two different actors. Both them and the audience have never seen or heard the script before, and thus everyone in the room unravels the story of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell at the same time. The two actors – on this night Saffia Kavaz and Michelle Tiwo – enter and meet each other, before reading letters they as actors have written to each other prior to the performance. In this way, the show blurs the line between actor and character right from the start, making everything feel all the more current and personal. Tiwo’s Lowell is both confident and vulnerable, especially hot on the comedy beats of the piece, while Kavaz’ Bishop is quietly genuine. As the evening continues, the actors find envelopes, postcards, and a variety of props that help both them and us piece together the poets’ relationship, with the play taking on the form of a choreographed jigsaw puzzle.
Director Ellen McDougall makes the stage into a children’s playground for the actors to explore. It is adorned with a velvet curtain that periodically rises to reveal props – the play incorporates small trees, a yellow balloon, and an inflatable toucan, among many other things. Between the two desks from which the actors read, a kind of graveyard is created: relics of the poets’ friendship gradually accumulate as props are discarded. A particularly mesmerising visual moment is when Tiwo’s Lowell appears under a shower of gold glitter: the audience pauses, transfixed by the stage magic of it all.
The questions at the heart of this piece are so fascinating: what makes theatre live? To what extent are actors on stage still performing as themselves? How entitled are we to the details of other people’s lives? While it definitely sparks a range of discussions, the show doesn’t always feel like it dives deep enough in any one direction: too much is up in the air. I admire this production’s fearlessness so much, but wonder what would have happened had it focussed in on one particular angle.
The nature of ‘live’ theatre has been widely questioned over the past year, with the rise of online theatre, streamed performances, and radio plays. It’s refreshing to see something so undoubtedly live and so separate from that debate. This is live theatre in its most essential form. The play also contributes to an ongoing conversation about the role of the actor, especially when it comes to two-hander plays. Along with the Donmar’s multi-cast production of Constellations, we are seeing theatre that centres on connection rather than identity or celebrity. What we witness in Dear Elizabeth is a kind of kinship between poets and between actors, rather than a love story in any traditional sense. In both shows, the central relationship remains unchanged regardless of who is playing it.
In her poem The Armadillo, Bishop describes ‘a handful of intangible ash/with fixed, ignited eyes’; an image which somehow sums up this production of Dear Elizabeth perfectly. The poet’s letters, which could have felt firmly in the past – intangible – are brought to life – ignited – by the actors, the blocking, the sound and lighting. Theatre is created before our very eyes.
Dear Elizabeth played at Theatro Technis until 18 September. For more information, see the Gate website.