Following it’s sell-out run last year Letters Live returned with a bang, celebrating the power of literary correspondence. And yours truly experienced the magnificent event on its final night, thanks to her ‘partner in all things fabulous’ Ms Mitchell.
‘Beyond excited’ is probably an understatement to describe my feelings on the eve of Tuesday 15th March 2016. This is the girl who at the age of ten used to wait longingly for the postman to arrive. Hoping, wishing, praying that one out of the pile of envelopes had her name written on it. I’d set my sights high too. Writing to Her Majesty the Queen about her corgis, Mr Kellogg about changing the flavour of his chocolate flavoured pops and erm, Mr Timotei about his florally floral shampoo. And they all put a smile on that little girl’s face with their packages of pure joy.
In the age of modern technology, letters are on the high road to extinction. Still, there’s something about putting pen to paper. Along with the words, you imprint a bit of yourself on the blank canvas. It’s the personal touch, you can’t convey that with a snappy text message or Facebook post.
So for a fan of the written word, an event solely dedicated to the old-fashioned letter was a dream! To add extra fizz to the evening, the line-up remains a secret. When you purchase the tickets, you have no idea who’ll be performing on any given night. What is for certain is that it’s bound to be a stellar cast. During the six night run the artists included Cary Mulligan, Ian McKellen, Gillian Anderson, Jarvis Cocker, Peter Capaldi, Dominic West and many more.
Shaun Usher’s international best-selling ‘Letters of note’ series inspired the event now in its fourth year. The wonderful recitals offers the chance to hear some of history’s most riveting correspondence. Some poignant, some peculiar and some outright belly laugh funny.
The venue itself is worth a visit in its own right. The stunning art deco landmark The Freemasons’ Hall has been a meeting place for masons since 1775.
With its majestic classical exterior and extensive use of mosaics, decorated ceilings, stained glass and dramatic lighting inside.
Its no surprise the Hall has been used as a filming location for TV and film productions including ‘Sherlock’, ‘Spooks’ and ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’.
The evening began with Jude Law performing ‘Five accidents in two minutes’ a humorous compliant letter from Fred Allen to the State of New York Insurance Department in 1932. Later came a moving letter from former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson to Planet Earth after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Full of thoughts about what was happening in the world as he looked down from space.
“…It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point…well obviously the world has changed today.”
Nick Moran beautifully read the letter ‘Don’t expect me to be sane anymore’ from Henry Miller to his lover Anais Nin. It perfectly encapsulated the deep sadness and pain felt by Miller towards his lost lover.
“I can’t see how I can go on living away from you – these intermissions are death…Here I am back and still smouldering with passion, like wine smoking…I say this is a wild dream – but it is this dream I want to realise.”
Timothy Carlton went from the heights of hilarity with a letter between the producers of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, to a deeply moving letter ‘I would like to give you your history’ from Argentinian poet Juan Gelman, to his missing grandchild in 1995. Five years after penning the emotional letter he was reunited with his granddaughter, ending his 23 year search.
Turning it into a family affair there was a surprise appearance from Timothy’s son – Mr Benedict Cumberbatch! Along with comedian Matt Berry they performed a laugh out loud performance of the ‘Your Babylonian Scullion’ an exchange between Mehmed IV and the Zaparozhian Cossacks in 1675. Matt Berry clearly enjoyed hurling the insults and Benedict couldn’t help but release his chuckles at the end. It was magic! His final reading was a 1965 letter from Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse entitled ‘DO’. Imploring the audience to just ‘do’ was captivating. He made the words leap right of the page with his superb delivery of the breathless list of fast paced thoughts.
The most powerful letter was read by a refugee Hassan Akkad, it was an open letter ‘Dear People of Europe’ penned by a Syrian refugee living in The Jungle camp in Calais. The aim of the event was to bring to the fore the plight of the refugees stranded in Calais. The audience could help raise funds via a stand in the foyer where they could purchase the ‘Choose Life ‘ t-shirt.
“This will put the history of the 21st century to shame”
The musical interludes came from the Mercury Prize Winner Benjamin Clementine who played a haunting rendition of ‘Bothering Heights on the piano and the Rag N Bone Man who performed ‘In my time of dying’ and ‘1st July’. I hadn’t heard of the latter, but great that the event brings lesser known artists to a brand new audience.
Other performances on the evening came from Rory Bremner, Edna O’Brian, Tuppence Middleton, Mariella Frostrup and Juliet Stevenson.
The 30 minute interval was slightly fraught, but only if you’re a woman desperate for the loo! The very nature of it being a Freemasons’ Hall, meant lady facilities were non-existent. It was a squeeze and hold situation for the four cubicles available or use the urinals.
Staring at the beautiful ceilings whist in the mile long queue helped. Holding a G&T in my hand however, did not.
If not pre-occupied with your bladder you could have spent the time writing your own fleeting letter. Rhodia (a notebook company) pledged throughout the event that they would cover the cost of postage (no matter how far it was going). All you had to do was write a postcard and pop it in the letterbox. It was a lovely touch and plenty of people got involved.
The cherry on the cake was seeing Ms Mitchell’s letter from the Oscar winning actor Mark Rylance in the programme. Such words of encouragement for the budding actress – so darn cool!
Over the course of two hours I was sent on an emotional rollercoaster through this ancient art of communication. And reminded never to underestimate the power of language. I think it would have inspired many at the event to go and pen their own thoughts. I for one was planning my trip to Paperchase – Watch the letterbox near you!
Letters Live will be announcing a further 25-30 dates across 2016 & 2017. Keep your eye out and book those tickets, it’s a guaranteed unique night out.
Do you have a treasured letter from a friend, family member or perhaps well-known figure?
Letters Live | Freemasons’ Hall | Great Queen St |London | WC2B 5AZ