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Dear reader

 

It seems most appropriate to write this as a letter as I want to tell you about a wonderful evening I recently spent in London at Letters Live.

 

If you don’t already know, Letters Live is an event where some of the best known names from the world of stage, screen, music and elsewhere come together to read letters written by people from all walks of life. Some funny, some sad, some quite ridiculous and some deeply serious.

 

I should point out to you, dear reader, that until each reader and letter was announced I had no idea who I would hear or who they would read. Imagine my delight when Benedict Cumberbatch walked onto the stage. How completely marvellous that he should read Mark Twain whilst doing an impression of another actor’s impression of Twain. Twain’s voice was never recorded for posterity but the impression by a contemporary and neighbour was. This actor, coincidentally, was also the first to ever play Sherlock Holmes! It’s a small world these consulting detectives inhabit isn’t it?

 

I wish you could have been there but as you did not have that pleasure let me tell you a little of what you missed:

 

Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch reading love letters from the Dear Bessie series. Brealey fluffing a line and exchanging amused glances with her co-star who, when it was his turn, started reading the wrong letter. They laughed with the audience and it didn’t matter one bit.

 

 

The ridiculously attractive Oscar Isaac reading a letter from a wholly unimpressed Alec Guinness complaining about Star Wars and his part as Obi Wan Kenobi. A more fitting reader of such a letter would be hard to contemplate.

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Geoffrey Palmer reading a letter written by Evelyn Waugh to his wife on the occasion of a tree being blown up. We cried with laughter.

 

 

Listening to the lovely Sophie Hunter read a letter written by Helen Keller describing her utter joy at being able to “hear” an orchestral symphony. The letter can be read in full here: My heart almost stood still.

 

And simply surreal moments like listening to Cumberbatch read Marcel Proust’s letter about his terrible masturbation habit and inability to screw; all the more surreal for the fact that Cumberbatch was being watched by his wife. The letter can be read here: My dear little grandfather.

 

Dear reader, I’m sure you know that events such as these are made all the more special by the knowledge that the performers are having as good a time as the audience. We were sat directly opposite the stage entrance. Watching the performers watching and supporting each other, peeping through the curtain, hugging each other, sitting happily on the floor together – shoulder to shoulder (Mr and Mrs C), enjoying every moment just as much as we were made this special night even more so.

 

I don’t like just to list things (I was once told off for writing a thank you letter that simply listed all the things I’d had for Christmas when I was a child); however, I feel it would be doing the other performers a disservice not to give them some credit. They were all equally wonderful.

 

Performing were the following (in order of appearance): Nitin Sawhney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brealey, Sophie Hunter, Simon McBurney, Hanif Kureishi, Sarah Snook, Geoffrey Palmer, David Nicholls, Jeremy Paxman, Oscar Isaac and Emiliana Torrini.

 

There was truly beautiful music from Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini which complemented the letter reading perfectly. I wish I could list all the letters that were read too, but I suspect one list in this letter is quite enough. You could peruse the Letters Live Twitter account if you were truly interested.

 

The last letter read was an unfinished one. It was written by Robert Falcon Scott and read by Benedict Cumberbatch. There was barely a dry eye in the house when it ended without the traditional letter ending and everyone realised why. You can read it and see the actual letter here: To: My Widow.

 

In the audience with us were Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, who we saw stopping to sign autographs and take selfies on the way out. We didn’t join the small queue; they weren’t working and we had trains to catch.

 

To top it all off the event took place at the Freemason’s Hall; a simply stunning Art Deco building that has to be seen to be believed.

 

Stained glass in Freemason’s Hall. My photo.

A stunning ceiling in Freemason’s Hall. My photo.

Stained glass in Freemason’s Hall. My photo.

 

A night of surprises, inspiration and emotion. I wish I could have been at every Letters Live night as one just simply wasn’t enough. And as I mentioned before, I just wish you could have been there.
 
Most sincerely yours,

 

Kathryn

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The curtain rose and just as a copperish head of curls started to emerge on the stage to the strains of Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy I heard a quiet gasp and a hand grabbed my upper arm. I jumped. A voice whispered in my ear, “Knock knock …”

 

“Who’s there?” said Benedict Cumberbatch.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photographer: Johan Persson.

 

This trip to the theatre had been a whole year in the imagining, the anticipation so great there was a real danger of it being a huge anti-climax. But I remained hopeful, even in the face of some horrible behaviour from the press and some less than favourable reviews of the early previews. Cumberbatch is an actor I consider to be one of the greatest of his generation and I like to make up my own mind about these things.

 

We were making the most of our weekend in London and before we even got to Hamlet we went to the Almeida Theatre in Islington to see Bakkhai with Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel. Bakkhai is the story of Dionysus, son of Zeus. An ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides. Now, call me uncultured but I know nothing about the Greek Gods and the myths and legends that surround them. I kept telling people I was going to see Bacchus and was somewhat relieved to discover that Dionysus is referred to as Bacchus quite regularly throughout the play as that’s what the Romans named him. I might just have got away with that one!

 

Ben Whishaw as Dionysus, Bakkhai. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

 

The play was very different to anything I’ve ever seen before. Ben Whishaw is a wonderful waif of an actor, best known to me for his ethereal performance as Richard II in The Hollow Crown series for which he won a BAFTA. Perhaps known better elsewhere for being the latest incarnation of Q in the James Bond films. In this he is almost androgynous, funny and sinister with an otherworldly air. There were only three actors in the whole play, as is apparently traditional, and they take on all the various parts, hence Bertie Carvel played both Pentheus and Pentheus’ mother. He was rather good in drag – apparently something he’s done before. Ben Whishaw aside, the thing I will remember most is the Greek chorus: a group of women who can do things with their voices I have never heard before and perhaps wouldn’t want to hear again.

 

Chorus, Bakkhai. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

 

Bakkhai is ultimately rather disturbing but it was very good and an interesting and cultured start to the weekend.

 

The following day we continued with the culture and ancient things and paid a visit to the British Library to see the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition which is fascinating but rather long and drawn out by what appeared to me to be some fairly tenuous links in the legacy part. Tony Hancock anyone? The stars of the exhibition are the beautiful illuminated books, manuscripts, charters, Papal Bulls and all manner of other things. All stunning in their painstaking detail and fascinating in their content and context. As someone who loves words I wanted to be able to read everything but in most cases it is almost impossible for us who are untrained and so spoilt by modernity to even attempt to read the beautiful and archaic script. The message that one takes away from this exhibition is that our rights, our freedom, justice, are not new concepts. It has ever been thus.

 

But I digress. On to Hamlet, which I can categorically state right now was not, in any way, anti-climatic.

 

We were in the fourth row, mesmerisingly close to the stage. After the knock knock joke from my witty friend Nic, which wasn’t entirely unexpected, I stared at the man on the stage, unable to quite comprehend that this was the Benedict Cumberbatch, right in front of me – Hamlet, no less.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photographer: Johan Persson.

 

When the whole stage was revealed I was stunned. It is a jaw-dropping set. Beautiful and magical and full of surprises. And it is vast.

 

I am one of those people the press have been trying to shame. I am not a Shakespeare connoisseur. Yes, I love his work but I’ve seen relatively little and I don’t always understand everything. I didn’t know what an arras was, was a bit sketchy on the bare bodkin and knew even less about the story of Hamlet. Unless I’m going to The Globe or to my local theatre I nearly always choose to go and see something because of who is in it. I wanted to see Hamlet because of Benedict Cumberbatch and what’s so wrong about that? Actors like Cumberbatch want to open up the theatre to a whole new generation of theatre-goers. They want people who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play to experience the Bard and love him like they do, and they want to eradicate the elitism and snobbery that prevails throughout much of theatre-land. I, for one, get very excited by the thought of Shakespeare reaching places he’s never reached before. Theatre needs new blood and most of all it needs the kind of blind enthusiasm and utter joy that only the young and un-jaded can bring. In Shakespeare’s day no-one minded heckles and jeers and applause and laughter, it was expected. I do think Willy Shakes may have been with Cumberbatch on mobile phones though.

 

During the interval, while scoffing some seriously good ice cream, we exchanged our views on the play so far. They were unanimous: the whole thing was mind-blowing in the extreme. Cumberbatch was mind-blowing, the set was mind-blowing, we loved it. We all felt that we were watching something rather special – a master at work.

 

Cumberbatch was born to perform Shakespeare. The poetry and the prose make perfect sense only when spoken in the right way and he does this unfailingly. He is witty, poignant, sad, angry and ultimately heart-breaking. He has perfect comic timing and can easily reduce me to tears of mirth or tears of sadness. He is a very physical actor on stage and when he roars he roars – I flinched!

 

For me there wasn’t a bad performance in the whole cast. Special mentions should go to Jim Norton for Polonius who was funny and bewildered, Sian Brooke for a heartbreaking Ophelia and Karl Johnson, an actor I already loved, for the ghost and the gravedigger – the latter being brilliantly dark with wicked humour.

 

The critics seem to be largely fixated on three things: the set being a distraction, the time in which the play is set and what sort of Hamlet Cumberbatch is portraying.

 

The set is immense and sumptuous – later imploding to become something much darker and sinister – but I was only truly distracted by it when it first appeared, staring in wonder with my jaw resting on my chest. After that I was drawn to the players and the story. For me the set only enhanced my experience.

 

I agree that the time in which the play was set was somewhat ambiguous but I don’t see why this mattered. Generally I saw it as being a fairly modern setting but ultimately this Elsinore seemed quite fantastical and ambiguity and fantasy go quite well together I think. So really … who cares?

 

What sort of Hamlet is Cumberbatch? “A bloody good one” according to his mother and I concur. Quite frankly I had no idea that this was “a thing” – I’ve never seen any other Hamlet so for me Cumberbatch’s will always be the definitive performance, the gauge by which I judge all others. I found him beguiling, seriously funny, mad with grief and anger, heart-breaking and full of rage. Most of all I felt great empathy towards him.

 

The instant standing ovation at the end was so well-deserved. Cumberbatch hadn’t quite reached the trinity of blood, sweat and tears but two out of three ain’t bad. He is a force of nature on stage, a fact enforced by the soaked t-shirt, and I only wish I could go and see this Hamlet again and again.

 

Judgement?”
“A hit, a palpable hit.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2

 

A sweaty Hamlet contemplates killing Claudius. Photographer: Johan Persson.

 

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