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Dear Elizabeth

Sarah Ruhl
Gate Theatre
Gate Theatre
to

A humorous tone is quickly established in Dear Elizabeth.

Two actors open a letter each has written to the other about the planned reading of correspondence between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It's the first of many envelopes they will open in this performance.

Both must be uncertain what to expect. There has been no rehearsal, no prior script for them to look at and what they are to do beyond the reading they are to discover on the printed sheets they receive during the play. Phoebe Fox and Nina Bowers are the latest pairing to perform the play for one occasion only.

They relax as Phoebe reads Nina’s letter. Then Nina struggles to understand Phoebe’s writing. The audience laughed.

The rest flows easily. There is a gentle, lyrical construction to the letters that leaves you in no doubt that Elizabeth and Robert are both poets.

They are mostly amusing, Robert slightly more directly, Elizabeth with a regular touch of irony.

The affectionate warmth they feel for each other at times takes on a romantic shading, Robert admitting to her that there was a time when he almost asked her to marry him.

But they found other partners. And as she names Lota de Macedo Soares her long-term partner and he marries Elizabeth Hardwick, the actors throw confetti over themselves.

It's one of many visuals to accompany the readings.

Elizabeth no sooner mentions getting a toucon bird than, to the surprise of Phoebe, the model of one suddenly drops to the level of her head.

Every so often, curtains open behind each actor to reveal gift boxes, a picnic basket, empty bottles of alcohol and of course the latest envelope.

Those bottles begin to clutter Elizabeth’s table as evidence of her alcohol problem.

I couldn’t imagine a better performance. Phoebe seemed at times to remember portions of a letter simply with a glance.

I sat at one end of the traverse space a few feet from Tina, whose facial expression had a fine emotional empathy with the words she read and those she heard so that, as Elizabeth spoke movingly, tears rolled down her cheek.

But the serious and sad notes are rare. The show can instead feel too comfortable and at times overly sentimental. That is certainly the way it felt when the pair sat together atop a wall wrapped in a warm blanket with music heavily underscoring the moment.

This emphasis on the romantic probably explains also the missing reference to any political events, which is all the more surprising given Robert Lowell marched in support of the Civil Rights Movement and, as an activist against the war in Vietnam, refused an invitation to the White House.

Its absence, for all the show's charm, can leave us with a very partial, cosy image of two insular lives among the idle rich.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna