Reviewed – 23rd January 2019
“the cold reading approach precludes us form caring about the characters and is an unfortunate roadblock before we even start on their journey”
The playwright Sarah Ruhl came across the lives of American poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, reading a book of letters between them. She found there was “something deeply compelling about the way these two lives intersected”. The letters, which span three decades from 1947 to 1977, tell the story of their relationship that defies easy definition. It wasn’t quite a friendship, nor a love affair: they seldom met, and both lived independent lives: Bishop was a lesbian and Lowell was with a variety of women. But they put their entire lives into language for the other. This intangible, intense connection forms the basis of Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth” which dramatises the beauty wrought from simple correspondence.
First produced at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2012 and later in New York, director Ellen McDougall has added an extra dimension by casting a different pair of actors each night and having them perform unprepared. It’s a fascinating idea, one that can potentially give a real edge to the drama, yet it is easy to go over that edge and into the pitfalls that come with this experimental approach.
The actors (on the evening of this review; Phoebe Fox and Nina Bowers) discover the story of the person they are representing as they go along. This can occasionally be awkward but gives an authentic messiness to the performances which reflects the intended ‘life-as-it-is-lived’ intention of the piece. Fox and Bowers quickly fall into time with the rhythm of the text and shed their self-consciousness. However, the cold reading approach precludes us form caring about the characters and is an unfortunate roadblock before we even start on their journey. There is a flicker of redemption towards the end when Fox relates a desperately moving account of Elizabeth Bishop’s lover’s, Lota de Maceda Soares, suicide; but it is all a bit too late.
Surreal moments promise to break up the fairly static narrative; during which, in parlour game fashion, the actors react to stage directions they are given. But these theatrical devices fail to get to the heart of the matter. Bishop’s alcoholism is clumsily touched upon by the appearance of a bottle of rubbing alcohol and Lowell’s chronic depression earmarked by a pillbox of tablets spilled onto the table.
In an interview Ruhl professes to asking herself “why am I so captivated” by the poets’ lives. A rhetorical question with an obvious answer: the letters themselves are an intimately honest documentation of two bruised souls opening up to each other. In McDougall’s hands though, Ruhl might be prompted to ask the same question again.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Gate Theatre until 9th February