Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell – names not necessarily widely known, yet their undefinable relationship is the subject of Tony Award nominee Sarah Ruhl’s play. Dubbed by Ruhl as two of America’s ‘most brilliant poets’, the pair wrote over 400 letters to each other spanning over 32 years; this profound work will make you will want to go away and read more of them.
Bishop and Lowell meet for the first time on stage, having never read the letters previously. Each night of this production could be completely different: dependent on the actor’s immediate reaction to the text and the chemistry between the actors.
The play opens with both actors writing a letter to the other actor to wish them luck, to say a little about themselves and why this work attracted them, and to have a comedic bit to apologise to the audience in case any aspect goes wrong. Jonjo O’Neill’s letter to Jade Anouka, (Lowell and Bishop respectively), contained the line “I don’t know what to expect this evening”; and the feeling within the audience feels very much the same.
Each actor starts with one envelope containing a series of papers: a sight-reading friendly version of the script, including certain instructions for their movement or actions, for them to read their own character’s letters – as if reading their thoughts aloud.
The stage is simply made up of a small table at each end with only a little desk light on, and a chair tucked underneath. At the back of the desks is a set of curtains each, where the actors are prompted to sit or take props from the high surface behind them.
Mol Tran’s minimalistic design, Jessica Hun Hang Yun’s lighting and Jon Nicholl’s sound design helps to emanate a raw energy for the actors, and an eagerness to continue watching, (despite it being 90 minutes, with no interval). O’Neill and Anouka, both poets as well as actors, really manage to grasp the heart of this and breathe life into the words on the pages – barely stumbling despite sight-reading the piece.
Just as fascinating as the words themselves is all the words left unspoken. Certain things are left unsaid both in person and in the letters, yet Lowell’s confessional letter of how deep his love is for Bishop and ‘the other life that might have been’ had they married is heart-wrenching. O’Neill’s delivery of this feels painful, despite both having their own romantic partners.
Thanks to the chaotic nature of their respective lives: most of their relationship existed through their letters, except at crucial turning points. Both Lowell and Bishop suffered with their mental health and addiction issues during their lives, as well as a profound sense of loneliness, even when both had partners. Their poems which are also read to the audience regularly save each other during hard times; with Bishop writing how the poem Lowell dedicates to her after a bereavement made her ‘feel a bit like myself again’.
What truly makes this play, however, is that amongst the three ‘L’s – loneliness, longing, and love – is the witticisms. Both O’Neill and Anouka play the comedic elements perfectly, with the lead up to the Corn Flake party scene, and the subsequent pouring of cornflakes over each other adding a slight flirty nature to their exchanges.
Due to no rehearsal, the only mild criticism would be that certain moments are a little messy, which can mean some moments lose their intimacy. Upcoming cast members for this piece include Tamsin Grieg (Episodes), Hattie Morahan (Sense & Sensibility, Outnumbered), Luke Norris (Poldark) – with both roles being played by people of various races, genders and ages– making this work one you could watch every night with a unique experience.
This concept will make you want to ditch technology, and pour your heart out to your nearest and dearest via letters – so get out your pen and paper.