The Gate Theatre is undeniably charming. It is a small seventy-five seat theatre in Notting Hill - one of the smallest of the West End theatres and it has proven itself to be full of heart in its production of Dear Elizabeth. This was my first visit to Gate Theatre and I'm sure it won't be the last.
Dear Elizabeth is set in traverse; the staging is simple and comprises solely of two white desks and chairs facing each other; observation is clearly key in this performance. The audience begins floating in a Brechtian space, as Ellen McDougall, the play’s director, explains that she wanted to create something that depicted 'life as it is lived. Not neat'.
McDougall has given Dear Elizabeth a particularly distinctive and conceptual twist: every individual performance sees a new pair of actors meet on stage for the first time, with no prior knowledge of the script, no rehearsals and no idea of what is happening next. I can imagine that any actor, no matter how experienced, would find this a daunting feat. Subsequently, visible nerves and occasional disorientation are part and parcel of the performance. However, this concept unquestionably succeeds and works its charming wonders on the audience.
Before the play begins, the two actresses of this evening met on stage and exchanged letters they had written for one another. Then each read the other’s aloud, allowing a small moment that facilitated familiarity with the person they would be performing alongside for the next hour and forty-five minutes. This was a lovely moment, full of apprehension and excitement. It was truly unique to watch complete strangers meet, tethered together by this peculiar position they found themselves in and it was even more rewarding to see how they related to another within the performance.
Next, we were thrown into the play itself which is composed of the letters that Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell sent one another between 1947 and 1977. It is unmistakeable that Sarah Ruhl has created a complete marvel of a production with Dear Elizabeth. Enduringly delicate, it addresses love and loss, Robert's mental illness and Elizabeth's alcoholism, giving insight into their relationship: one strained between the romantic and the platonic, across seas and decades, but evidently enduring.
The production too is enchanting - a new surprise comes at every turn. One moment the music changes and boxes, letters, toucans, liquor bottles and confetti all appear quite suddenly behind the mustard velvet curtains that quickly open and then close, enabling the actions of the play. The unknowing actors, following the instructions given to them, created an aura of genuine surprise and occasional delight in what has been orchestrated for them, giving way to the idiosyncrasies that make this play so appealing and heart-warming.
It is difficult to give an apt review of the acting within the production, as it is all down to spontaneity, but what can be said is that if the performances of Phoebe Fox and Nina Bowers are a representation of the other talent in this series, then all performances will be just as excellent.
Phoebe Fox played Elizabeth Bishop with an attentive softness that suited the character perfectly, hitting every chord with authenticity and courage. At one point, she began to tear up as she discovered one of the turns of her character's life and it was almost impossible not to tear up alongside her. Nina Bowers, as Robert Lowell, did, however, hit a couple of bum notes, verging on too earnest at times but, nevertheless, delivering a sound and expressive performance. As a pair, Fox and Bowers were impeccable, matching each other’s energy with chemistry and generosity throughout.
Gate Theatre's production of Dear Elizabeth is incredibly tender and poignant; it is the kind of play one has to take a big breath after, not only to clear the fog in your throat but also to take a step back into reality. I cannot help but wish that I could see it night after night to watch new pairs of actors meet and navigate the lives of these two characters together.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford
Dear Elizabeth at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill runs until 9th February.