Letters Live – Freemason’s Hall (Sunday 13th March)


Almost a year since my last visit I was back at the Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden tonight for another wonderful evening at Letters Live.

It’s brilliant how successful this idea has become since it started and it’s such a simple, yet beautiful concept. Hearing letters, conveying such a range of emotions read aloud never fails to make me want to put pen to paper and send some thoughts out to the people in my life. This year at Letters Live, the campaign to encourage more of us to connect via a letter has been stepped up. Rhodia, a notebook company, was on hand giving out free notebooks and postcards. Their promise – write a postcard and post it in the box and they will cover the postage, no matter how far it’s going. Then there’s the Letters Live programme itself, which as well as containing some lovely letters, includes a pull out letter/envelope for you to write to your hero.

I’ve already booked to go again on Tuesday, but I thought I’d do as I did last year and talk a bit about each night and set out a full list of readers and their letters (seeing as this is still not contained within the programme, although is tweeted by @letterslive).

In my seat ready for Sunday’s show

Tonight’s show included a mix of poignant and humorous letters, giving us an insight in to the lives of their writers across the decades. A few hours before the show it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch (who has been involved with Letters Live since its beginning) would be taking part tonight, which was an added bonus! Taking the stage alongside Benedict tonight was: Louise Brealey, Sophie Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Jeremy Paxman, Geoffrey Palmer, Sarah Snook, Simon McBurney, Hanif Kureishi and David Nicholls, with musical interludes by Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini.

There are always letters that touch me a little more than others at each Letters Live and tonight those I found most special included Oscar Isaac’s moving reading of Richard Feynman’s love letter to his late wife, Benedict’s final reading of Robert Falcon Scott’s letter to his wife as he neared death in 1912 following his team’s successful journey to the South Pole, from which he would never return and Helen Keller’s letter to the NY Symphony Orchestra. Being blind and deaf, her ability to feel the vibrations of their Beethoven concert was wonderfully read by Sophie Hunter. Then there was the letter from the Connell family in Lockerbie to the family of Frank Cialla, a victim of the plane disaster, who they found in their garden.

The latest addition to the book series – More Letters of Note

There was of course humour and laughter tonight too. Oscar Isaac was the perfect choice to read Alec Guinness’s letter in which he criticises Star Wars and moans about the young actors treating him as if he were 106! Geoffrey Palmer (as he did last year) read Evelyn Waugh’s wonderfully funny letter to his wife about an exploding tree, as well as Dalton Trumbo’s scathing complaint to a hospital. Then of course there was the wonderful pairing of Louise Brealey & Benedict reading more from Chris & Bessie (who have become a signature for Letters Live in my view).

I hadn’t heard of either of tonight’s musical performers but both Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini added an extra element to the show. All in all it was a fantastic evening. I still cannot recommend these events enough. There is something for everyone and you will be transported through history and emotion as you listen to words that were written so long ago, but meant so much to both writer and receiver. As Canongate CEO said at the start of the night, the words in such letters show us our shared humanity. In years to come I hope there will still be letters such as these for future generations to cherish.

So – if there is someone you’ve been meaning to get in touch with – delete that short text or tweet and pick up a pen and a piece of paper. Write to them. You never know it might just make their day.

Tonight’s List of Letters & Music – Sunday 13th March 2016

  • Tides by Nitin Sawhney (piano)
  • “What great births you have witnessed” – Mark Twain to Walt Whitman (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Dear Friend” – Hermione Gingold to A. Friend in 1950 (read by Louise Brealey & Sophie Hunter)
  • “Nothing is ours except time” – Lucius Anmaeus Seneca to Lucilius Junior (read by Simon McBurney)
  • “My Dungeon Shook” – James Baldwin to his nephew in 1963 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
  • “The most astonishing thing” – Madame de Sevigne to Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges in 1670 (read by Sarah Snook)
  • “Stupidity is a crime” – Dalton Trumbo to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in 1960 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
  • “Reputed Bantling” – F.Scott Fitzgerald to Andrew Turnbull in 1932 (read by David Nicholls)
  • “To All Reporters” – Newspaper editor to his staff (read by Jeremy Paxman)
  • “I love my wife. My wife is dead.” – Richard Feynman to his late wife Arline (read by Oscar Isaac)
  • “My dear little Grandfather” – Marcel Proust to his grandfather (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Autumn Sun” by Emiliana Torrini (song)
  • “Prophecy” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar)
  • “My Dear Bessie” – Chris Barker and Bessie Moore! (read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey)
  • “Your type is dime a dozen” – Hunter S. Thompson to Anthony Burgess in 1973 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
  • “The appalling horror” – Florence Nightingale to Dr. William Bowman in 1854 (read by Louise Brealey)
  • “This is quite true” – Evelyn Waugh to his wife Laura in 1942 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
  • “New Rubbish Dialogue” – Alec Guinness to Anna Kaufman in 1976 (read by Oscar Isaac)
  • “My heart almost stood still” – Helen Keller to the NY Symphony Orchestra in 1924 (read by Sophie Hunter)
  • “We all feel like that now and then” – Sir Archibald Clark Kerr to Lord Reginald Pembroke in 1943 (read by Jeremy Paxman)
  • “Our Frank” – The Connell Family to the Cialla Family (read by Simon McBurney)
  • “I embrace you with all my heart” – Albert Camus to his old teacher Louis Germain in 1957 (read by David Nicholls)
  • “Ought women not to be abolished” – Clementine Churchill to The Times in 1912 (read by Sarah Snook)
  • “To My Widow” – Robert Falcon Scott to his wife in 1912 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Sunny Road” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar) & Emiliana Torrini (vocal)

Letters Live has two performances left on Monday and Tuesday. For ticket availability see the website here. The wonderful books, To The Letter, Letters of Note, More Letters of Note and My Dear Bessie are available through the usual stockists.