Letters Home

Aug 22 2014 | By More

★★★★☆   Power of communication

Edinburgh International Book Festival (Venue 383). Sat 9 – Mon 25 August 2014

Letters Home combines inventiveness, variety, sophisticated writing and sheer visual magnetism.

Muna Otaru and Rhoda Ofori–Attah in Details. Photo: Janeanne-Gilchrist

Muna Otaru and Rhoda Ofori–Attah in Details. Photo: Janeanne Gilchrist

The Edinburgh International Book Festival’s first foray into theatre, a site-specific piece in collaboration with Grid Iron, uses Charlotte Square to stunning effect.

Four writers from around the world contributed short stories in epistolary form, which have been turned into four contrasting performances, with the original texts cut (in some cases drastically) to satisfy a twenty-minute maximum running length for each, creative co-ordinator Zinnie Harris overseeing it all.

The audience is split into four small groups and led to venues in and around Charlotte Square to experience the different parts of the performance.

Michael John McCarthy has turned Kei Miller’s England in a Pink Blouse into an immersive piece, with the audience strapped into aeroplane seats, complete with eye masks, to hear the story of a Jamaican man’s journey to England and voyage of self-discovery.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Details features an email exchange between two people whose relationship is hampered not only by distance but also by the near-invisible status of gay women in Nigeria. Sympathetic direction by Joe Douglas and excellent performances by Muna Otaru and Rhoda Ofori–Attah make this the most straightforwardly affecting of the four.

fiery and committed

Alice Nelson’s film adaptation of Kamila Shamsie’s War Letters, meanwhile, is the most visually arresting. Four separate screens show images from four countries constantly, telling the story of two Punjabi soldiers fighting in World War I. There is a danger of sensory overload, as it is impossible to take everything in, but the narrative retains a visceral power.

Ben Harrison’s adaptation of Eve and Cain by Christos Tsiolkas is the most self-consciously theatrical segment. A sand-filled room off Rose Street is the setting for slaves of the biblical characters to deliver messages between mother and son. Charlene Boyd and Gavin Marshall’s performances are fiery and committed, and if it threatens to become a little overwrought, it is the most epic in its sweep and opens out into a series of preoccupations which would be enough to fill a series of plays.

The theme of dialogue that inspired the original works has led to some intriguing questions. Two of the plays feature email exchanges, and the others touch on the impossibility of written correspondence when some parties are illiterate. This hints at the evasions and sense of performance hidden behind so much that is apparently dialogue.

Each piece on its own would be a satisfactory experience. Together, they make a magnetic whole. There are so many others whose contributions should be noted – Philip Pinsky’s music and sound design, technical staff in all of the venues, and not least the front of house staff who shepherd the audiences around the Square.

The least satisfactory part of the evening, sadly, is the conclusion back in the Book Festival venue. While the thinking behind it is sound, there is a definite feeling of anti-climax after the rest of the performance.

The skill, variety and sheer emotional power of the evening as a whole, however, make it almost overwhelming. It is to be hoped that those not lucky enough to get tickets will have a chance to see it on some other occasion.

Running time 2 hours 15 minutes
Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square Gardens, EH2 4DR (Venue 383)
Performance starts in the entrance tent. The walking is not strenuous and all performances are inside but an umbrella might be recommended depending on weather forecast.
Sat 9 – Mon 25 August 2014 (not Tues)
Daily at 6.15 pm
Whole run sold out – check for returns at https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/letters-home


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