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.
Letters Live at Freemasons’ Hall 10th–15th March 2016
Letters Live returns to London’s iconic Freemasons’ Hall, one of the finest Art Deco buildings in Britain.
Inspired by Letters of Note, the best-selling anthology compiled by Shaun Usher, and To the Letter by Simon Garfield, Letters Live is a series of curated, live events that celebrate the enduring power of literary correspondence.
Performed by a remarkable and surprise cast each night, Letters Live is a unique event that is heartbreaking, euphoric, hilarious and inspiring in equal measure. Those who have previously attended Letters Live will know how memorable these evenings are. In addition, a portion of the proceeds from each show are channelled towards a number of carefully selected literacy charities to support the important work they do.
When Freemasons’ Hall welcomed actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Ian McKellen and Tom Hiddleston into the Grand Temple, Jessica Hopkins was in the audience to listen to messages of love and anguish in Letters Live
Without words we’d be forever fumbling in the dark; letters throw light wherever they are cast.’ And so opens a night of extraordinarily moving literary entertainment at Freemasons’ Hall.
It began as a simple idea: a website dedicated to photos of remarkable letters from the past, accompanied by transcriptions and introductions. Letters of Note then became something of a Twitter sensation before becoming a hardback anthology and then morphing into Letters Live. This year’s five-night live performance spectacular at London’s Freemasons’ Hall in April saw a glittering line-up of performers read against the glorious Art Deco backdrop of the Grand Temple.
While events at Freemasons’ Hall do tend to be bespoke, one-off occasions, Letters Live offered the chance to do something quite different. ‘It was unique and like nothing we had done before,’ explains Karen Haigh, Head of Events at the Hall. ‘Even though I knew we could do it, I also realised that we had never done anything on this scale.’
With 7,500 tickets sold, more than 40 performers treading the boards and some 100 letters read aloud – not to mention an unexpected fire blazing beneath the streets of nearby Holborn – it was no small feat to pull off. When the Holborn fire forced Freemasons’ Hall to cancel the Wednesday performance, many of those scheduled to read that night came along to the Thursday show instead, creating a dream playbill: a who’s who of the stage and screen scene.
The audience didn’t know who was performing until the moment they appeared on stage, so whoops of surprise and delight were heard as Sir Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Sir Ben Kingsley, Simon Callow, Sophie Hunter and Clarke Peters stepped up to the podium, to name but a few.
With opening and closing music by newcomer and one-to-watch Kelvin Jones, as well as a passionate solo cello performance by Natalie Clein, the evening – like the whole run – had been thoughtfully curated to match performers to letters. Subjects spanned the arts and politics, love and loss, family and friendship, longing and rejection.
There were letters filled with advice and encouragement, such as Kurt Vonnegut to Xavier High School, read with McKellen’s wise drawl: ‘Practice any art… no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.’
There were letters filled with furious rejection, like Hunter S Thompson’s to Anthony Burgess on receipt of a ‘50,000 word novella about the condition humaine…’ instead of the Rolling Stone thinkpiece he had commissioned. Performed by Dominic West and full of language far too colourful to reproduce here, it was one of the more spirited readings of the evening.
The Grand Temple buzzed with energy from the performers, while the splendour of the venue was equally captivating – visually beautiful and acoustically fantastic, it became an enhancer when it could have been a distractor. Those attending were left with the feeling of having witnessed something truly magical. It’s an effect Karen was keen to achieve: ‘We wanted people to enjoy the experience of going to the theatre but also be somewhere completely unique,’ she enthuses.
It certainly didn’t disappoint.
Evocative and emotional
For Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter to her husband, Leonard, the Grand Temple turned to darkness with only a single spotlight on reader Greta Scacchi: ‘I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time… Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.’ A visceral, desolate performance.
Benedict Cumberbatch drew on his best David Bowie impression to read a letter written from the musician to his first American fan in 1967, when he had no sense of how famous and renowned he would become, which added to its innocent excitement and humility. In a duologue performance, Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey – facing one another across the Grand Temple and very much in-the-round – read letters from Chris and Bessie: two everyday British civilians who fell in love via ink and paper while separated during World War II. The collection showcased quite beautifully how letters written by ordinary people with passion and something to say can contain just as much poetry within their pages as those written by thinkers, artists and academics.
Perhaps the performance of the evening came from 87-year-old actor Joss Ackland, who read a letter he’d written to his future wife Rosemary, who was engaged to another person at the time. Either side of the reading he performed the part he was rehearsing when he first met her: Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s soliloquy from the Capulet’s orchard, ‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’
‘I might be a trifle old, but I think this is the way I played it,’ he told the audience before reciting from memory a speech full of lust and longing. And then, after the letter: ‘This is how I would play it now, with Rosemary no longer with me.’ In a breathtaking performance, the longing remained, but it was cloaked in sorrow rather than driven by lust.
With considerable media coverage, Letters Live has been one of the more high-profile events hosted at Freemasons’ Hall, generating only positive sentiment according to Karen. ‘Events such as this are a way of saying to people that we’re not what you think we are,’ she explains. ‘Because when we open our doors people’s preconceptions are completely blown away.’