Celebrating 300 years

The stories we tell

Monday, 12 December 2016

The stories we tell

Now in its third year, Letters Live returns to Freemasons’ Hall in a sell-out run. Emilee Tombs takes notes

A hush falls over the crowd inside the main chamber of Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden, London. The anticipation is palpable as actor Toby Jones takes to the stage and grabs the microphone to speak. ‘Letters cast powerful spells,’ he starts. ‘They take the reader to places familiar and strange.’

It was with this thought that Letters Live, now in its third year, was conceived. Based on the blog and then best-selling book series Letters of Note by Shaun Usher, and Simon Garfield’s book To the Letter, the event is the reading aloud of a collection of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters ever written. What makes it more compelling is that the acts who read the letters during the week-long event are a secret until they appear on stage.

From Virginia Woolf’s heartbreaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower, and Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, Letters Live celebrates the power of written correspondence and its ability to capture the humour, pathos, anger and wisdom of its authors. Supporting charities First Story, Ministry of Stories and Help Refugees, Letters Live this year enjoyed a sell-out run.

‘Someday find my [son] Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him what times were like when we [were] not separated by war…’ Luz Long, writing to Jesse Owens

Politics and power

‘The great thing about a letter,’ says actor Nick Moran, standing opposite fellow actor Colin Salmon, ‘is that it invites a response.’ What follows is a hilarious exchange from 1676 between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and Turkish sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, in which the sultan (read by Salmon) bombastically lists his successes and personal affiliation to God, and demands: ‘I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.’

To this, the Zaporozhian Cossacks (read by Moran) reply with a barrage of Monty Python-worthy insults: ‘O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked arse?’

Later in the evening, letters from readers of The Guardian on the subject of ‘The dog’s politics’ also elicit laughter from the audience. ‘There will always be some dogs who are corrupted, misled and – like Stalin – born to the left but end up on the fascistic right. Just as there must be rare examples of cats who have abandoned their life of comfort – Che Guevara comes to mind – and given their lives to the betterment of others (though I am yet to meet one). Which brings us to the one undeniable truth shared by anyone, of any political persuasion, who has ever canvassed door-to-door: dogs vote Labour, cats vote Conservative.’

Throughout the five-day run, audiences are treated to readings by Sanjeev Bhaskar, John Bishop, Edith Bowman, Jarvis Cocker, Julian Clary, Jamie Cullum, Sophie Dahl, Simon Day, Omid Djalili, Mariella Frostrup, Miriam Margolyes, Michael Palin, Nicholas Parsons and Robert Rinder.

On the third night, Gillian Anderson reads a letter from an old Irish lady in a nursing home, describing to her family how she got her own back on the mean women she shares a room with.

There’s also a letter from director Michael Powell to his friend Martin Scorsese, congratulating him on the script of Goodfellas, read – with awe – by Danny Boyle.

Beyond the words

One letter, penned during World War II by German Olympian Luz Long to American Olympian Jesse Owens, is a tear-jerker. The pair met during a tense 1936 Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler and became firm friends and pen pals even through the war that followed. Writing from North Africa, where he was stationed with the German army and later killed in action, Long implores Owens: ‘Someday find my [son] Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we [were] not separated by war. I am saying – tell him how things can be between men on this earth.’

What makes this and many other readings at the event so special is that the audience is privy to background information, researched by the Letters Live team. In this instance, we learn that Owens did in fact travel to Germany some years later to meet Long’s son, and that the pair remained friends until Owens’ death in 1980.

Towards the end of the evening, a letter written by a former slave to his old master almost brings Colin Salmon to tears, and not – as we learn later – under the guise of his character. It goes to show that such a strong message, even one sent decades ago, cannot be underestimated. As the audience exits Freemasons’ Hall, it is heartening to think that even in an age of emails, texts and Facebook updates, the art of letter writing still has the power to capture our imaginations.

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