Edinburgh International Festival
19.00, 22.00 27 August ONLY
This show’s format was devised in 2013: this was its first visit to Edinburgh. Against a silhouette of an idealised Edinburgh skyline, on a smoke-filled stage, actors read letters written by people from widely-differing cultures, countries, and centuries. Our host, Jamie Blake of Canongate Books, welcomed us to Edinburgh, a city “steeped in letters”, and invited us to open some letters – “potent time capsules” – and get glimpses of the lives of their authors.
I was impressed with Kelvin Jones who managed to get the entire audience singing – in two-part harmony! – as his backing group in the final chorus of Nick Cave’s Love Letter. The actors included Harriet Walter, Ian McShane, and Meera Syal, and a quintet of young people who read some of the letters submitted in answer to the Edinburgh International Festival’s invitation to young people to write a letter from the future to their younger selves. These were deeply moving – not least the initially amusing one which ended by assuring their younger self that they would be a man, not a girl – and rightly brought the house down.
Other letters were from George Bernard Shaw, complaining bitterly and wittily about the lack of dress code for women attending the opera; Jack Lemmon telling Walter Matthau about an absurdly amusing money-making scheme involving a cat ranch in Mexico; Bette Davis’ acerbic response to her daughter’s publication of a biography of her mother; Frank Sinatra’s advice to George Michael; and Roald Dahl, drunk as a skunk, writing from Tanzania to his mother.
James Baldwin’s letter to his 14-year-old nephew James in the centenary year of the abolition of slavery resonates loudly today. He advises the youth, in the light of the then current integration furore, that “whites fear their loss of their identity” [as superior] and that “these men are your brothers, your lost and younger brothers” and that “only love will change this: we cannot be free until they are free” … would that more people would heed his advice!
A Scottish connection was made with a reading of Mary Queen of Scots’ letter to her French brother-in-law immediately prior to her execution, and one from a family in Lockerbie who had, four years after the disaster, been visited by the family of the man whose body they had found on their farm – so much love, sympathy, and understanding shared between strangers connected by tragedy. Edinburgh was referenced with an exchange between J K Rowling and the young woman who wrote simply to thank Jo for her writing. She revealed how closely her life circumstances mirrored those of her exact contemporary, Harry Potter, and how Harry, her “best friend”, had helped her cope with an unbelievably shitty childhood and adolescence: Jo’s reply was warm, wise, understanding, and witty.
There were other letters, long, short, angry, sad, passionate, funny, tragic, surreal and hysterically funny: the evening closed with Eddi Reader singing Dear John – the letter nobody wants to write or to receive. All the actors in Letters Live give their services for free, and the monies raised go to local literacy charities – this evening benefits the Craigmillar Literacy Trust and the Scottish Book Trust. It was a splendidly entertaining evening, opening windows into people’s lives, shedding new light on characters we thought one knew, giving food for thought, and reminding us that the art of writing a letter is something we might perhaps consider reviving: e-communications are simply not the same!