On Thursday, I kicked off the Easter week-end with one of the Letters Live performances of 2015. The day before, an electrical fire raged underneath Kingsway, virtually next door to the Freemasons' Hall, and that evening's performance was cancelled. Too bad for the Wednesday ticket-holders and too good for us; the line-up was carried over for a show that clocked up at 3 hours and 45 minutes (with a 15-minute interval) and included Ben Kingsley, Clarke Peters, Danny Huston, Ian McKellen, Sophie Hunter, Ferdinand Kingsley, Simon Callow, Louise Brealey, Andrew Scott, Greta Scacchi, Dominic West, Joss Ackland, Andrew O'Hagan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alan Rusbridger plus the musical performances of Kelvin Jones and Natalie Calvin.
I've always loved reading letters, both the ones I receive and even the ones I re-read before I send them, and in fact, I have an illustrious past (ahem, allow me) as a letter-writer that started when I was eight, and I wrote to Barbie Magazine enquiring after pen friends (these were the 1980s and no, I am not joking, just ask my mum). They published my letter with my address and I received tons and tons of replies and cost my parents a fortune in stamps because, even though many of these pen-friends dropped away as time passed, a few did not.
One of them has stuck around all this time, and even though we now only catch up at Christmas and for our birthdays, this year we celebrate thirty years of correspondence without ever having met. I wish I had kept all of those letters and even though my gut feeling is that they could not be defined, in any shape or form, 'letters of note', sitting in the audience the other night made me realise that, actually, you don't know whether what you are writing or reading is going to be a letter of note one day.
Consider the wonderful correspondence between Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, a wartime testament to endurance and love, certainly, but also to history being written by supposedly 'unremarkable' people, for neither of them were high-profile politicians, nor entertainers, to name but two categories. Their love story in letters, My Dear Bessie, provides a legacy to all of us but one especially poignant and highly humurous in light of their grand-daughter, who spoke of their primness and puritanism alongside the wonderful surprise of discovering that there was so much more passion to them than anyone could have imagined. On the night, their wonderful, and in places hilarious, longing for each other was brought to life by the effervescent performances of Benedict and Louise, whom you can also listen to on Radio 4 at the end of April. Don't miss it for the world, you will love it.
For all of my love of reading letters, I've always found it ever so slightly intrusive. I know that I would die of embarrassment if some of my letters (make that emails these days) were actually read out or published. There is an element of intrinsic intimacy to the epistolary medium that makes me feel like a nosy snoop, very much in the same way I feel when I crack open Kurt Cobain's diaries and I can assure you it has little to do with his untimely and tragic passing. Even as I read and re-read P.G. Wodehouse's wonderful letters, I feel like a nosy thief of someone else's emotions. As Louise Brealey has said, 'I have rarely felt so close to someone I've never met'.
It is not easy to single out my favourite letter from this event and certainly, the more I think about it, and the more I can only conclude that I should separate my favourite letter from my favourite performance on the night. So I can tell you that my favourite letter was the one from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse, read out by Andrew Scott. If you've been around this site for quite some time, it will be evident why I am singling it out. It's a celebration of creating whilst being forceful about not worrying about what the rest of the world says. Just DO dammit! It was wonderful to hear it live, and Andrew did an excellent job, at once tender and forceful. If you go here, you can actually see the original.
But my very favourite performance of the night goes to the wonderful Dominic West, who read the fantastically spiteful letter of Hunter S. Thompson to Anthony Burgess with just the right amount of revolting disgust, which is... an awful lot of.
I should also mention Greta Scacchi's reading of Virginia Woolf's suicide note to her husband as particularly close to my heart, as was Joss Ackland's staggering rendition of Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene II [But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?], first as the young man he once was, longing to be with the woman he loved, and then, fifty years later, after she passed away. I am not ashamed to tell you that at this point, hot tears spilled over; he delivered a staggering homage to his companion of a lifetime likely to be deeply felt by anyone who has ever experienced love.
I hope that next time perhaps I'll get to hear one of Plum Wodehouse's letters, which I know so well, and perhaps I get to see Tom Hiddleston again, who was so impressive in Coriolanus. And I'll let you what, if I get to marry Tom... that'll qualify me to read on the night as well so if you are really lucky... you'll get to listen to me too...