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Dear Elizabeth review at Gate Theatre, London – ‘a fascinating experiment’

Shalisha James-Davis in Dear Elizabeth at Gate Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Murray

American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell had a rich, complicated relationship. Over a 30-year period they wrote each other more than 400 witty, affectionate letters in which they confided in one another and critiqued each other’s work.

This correspondence formed the basis for Sarah Ruhl’s 2014 two-hander and now director Ellen McDougall has taken Ruhl’s text and used it to create a work that aims to be as much about the nature of creativity as it is about the multifariousness of human connection.

A different pair of actors plays Bishop and Lowell each night, neither of whom has seen the text beforehand. At the performance I saw, Jade Anouka played Bishop and Jonjo O’Neill played Lowell. Tamsin Greig, Lucy Ellinson and Chris Thorpe will perform later in the run.

Sat at tables at opposite ends of a narrow room, designed by Moi Tran, with walls curtained in mustard-coloured velvet and an iridescent floor, they read out their letters – beginning with ones written by the actors to each other – and follow instructions that end up with the gleaming floor carpeted in cornflakes, petals and pills – the detritus of life.

Ruhl has called the poets’ friendship “an impossible love story”. Lowell was hospitalised repeatedly with manic depression; Bishop moved to Brazil. Both had other partners, but they sustained one another, dedicating poems to one another – Skunk Hour and The Armadillo. It remains rare to see the love between friends given the same dramatic weight as a sexual relationship.

O’Neill and Anouka perform with fluidity and warmth. Watching their reactions and choices is a large part of the appeal of the piece.

Though McDougall’s experiment engages the head more than the heart, it takes a potentially flat form – the epistolary play – and uses it to capture the fire of being alive.

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A fascinating performative experiment inspired by the correspondence between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop