Date: 3 April 2015.
Location: Erggh. The worst ever traffic on The Strand, on the 91 bus home, around midnight.
Thursday night. 8pm. I have one of those moments so superb and technicolor that that you have to check yourself: this is real, right?
“September 1st, 1939,” a voice booms over the speakers, “Germany invades Poland resulting in what many believe to be the beginning of Workd War II. Just over a month before this happens, Mohandas Gandhi writes the first of his two letters to Adolf Hitler attempting to prevent the oncoming war. Here to read that letter, please welcome Sir Ben Kinglsey.”
The inimitable Kingsley — a man who won an Academy Award for his role in the film Gandhi — takes the stage and begins, “Dear friend…” Meters away Ian McKellen leans against a pillar and watches on, nodding slowly.
We’re at the first of just four performances of Live Letters in London’s Freemason’s Hall.
The London Freemasons Hall is everything you’d want your average secret society headquarters to be. It sits on its own block in cobbled Covent Garden, diagonally aligned to would-be competing buildings. It’s tall and ornate. Its stone walls are thick and it’s well guarded. Inside, there’s an abundance of marble, dark wood and stained glass windows bearing arcane symbols, cryptic lists carved in stone. (And too bad if you’re a woman and need to pee — there’s one tiny toilet at the back of the hall that they’ve generously allowed females to use just tonight.) Upon arrival, we’re ushered quietly past the ‘robing rooms’ and into the Grand Lodge. Inside the hall there are rows of seats. Above them are a pair of galleries. In the middle of the room is a cordoned off ‘stage’. Just next to that are our seats. I could spit on Benedict Cumberbatch as he reads a slick and camp rendition of Noel Coward’s letter to Marlene Dietrich, should I so inclined (I am not).
Under the vaulted, frescoed starry ceilings we watch and listen to famous letters read around by many, including Dominic West, Greta Scaachi, Joss Atherton, Benedict and his Sherlock co-star Louise Brealey and — I choke on my bad wine — Ian McKellen in a pair of cuffed jeans and Chuck Taylors as he reads a famous, impassioned 1950s coming out letter to the author’s mother, a Save Our Children petitioner. We hear a new and uncertain David Bowie’s candid response to his first American fan. Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her beloved husband. The vitriolic rejection letter that Anthony Burgess received from a Rolling Stone editor in response to his ‘think piece’, a self-indulgent 50,000 word novella. Ursula Le Guin’s prosaic response when asked to write the forward to a collection of sci fi short stories — not one of which was penned by a woman. Clementine Churchill’s sharp response to a misognstic article in which she begs the question, why not simply abolish women altogether?
Last night’s fire has resulted in that performance being cancelled. This is a huge boon to us, tonight’s audience, as it means that all of the actors invited to read on the Wednesday have joined Thursday’s crew and the readings extend over almost 4 hours of teary moments (an aged Joss Atherton reading his love letters to his late wife) and honest laughter (letters to The Guardian discussing whether cats are conservatives and dogs socialists, ‘There will always be some dogs who are corrupted, misled and – like Stalin – born to the left but end up on the fascistic right. Just as there must be rare examples of cats who have abandoned their life of comfort – Che Guevara comes to mind – and given their lives to the betterment of others (though I am yet to meet one). Which brings us to the one undeniable truth shared by anyone, of any political persuasion, who has ever canvassed door-to-door: dogs vote Labour, cats vote Conservative.’ The response? ”Dogs are the fascists. Have you ever seen a police cat?‘.)
It’s amazing. Truly, a once in a lifetime theatrical experience. However. I had plans. I love you Ian McKellen, but I had plans.
Clear across town a handful of friends are drinking £2 mojitos in a Clapham pub. By the time we leave Freemasons Hall it’s late and my intention to join them wavers. My date for the night is Miss Black (whom I’m not sure you’ve met, I’ll introduce you later) and she is frank: no way is she trekking to Clapham when bed is so close. I dither. Cons: it’s 11pm and raining, I’d have to commute alone and I’m not sure any stunts I can pull can catch me up to a gaggle of people who’ve been on the discount cocktails for four hours. Pros: I love this particular gaggle, the Northern Line goes right there and I have no plans tomorrow. And this is London. It’s about to be Good Friday. Seems a good time to be bad. I get on the train.
To be continued.
(You can read the letters in question and more at http://www.lettersofnote.com)