Intelligence2 was formed in 2002 with the aim of becoming the worldwide front runner in promoting debates and discussions and hosting talks across a number of disciplines. Naturally this covers the Arts and one of its most popular strands has been the “cultural battles” where heavyweight figures are pitted one against the other (e.g., Dickens v. Tolstoy); readings during these are usually given by top notch actors. One of the selections that caught my eye was Letters That Changed The World which basically does what it says on the tin by investigating momentous communications which had a bearing on history. The letters are all taken from historian/novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2019 selection Written In History.
The complier himself is on hand to introduce some of the selected letters alongside equally celebrated author Kate Mosse. They in turn are introduced by Razia Iqbal who also chairs proceedings and although this suggests that the format is going to be a debate it isn’t because everyone comes at it from the same angle – that letters are an important window onto the past and can cast a new perspective on momentous events. I was intrigued by the notion that before the D Day landings Eisenhower wrote two letters, one celebrating the success of the enterprise and one taking full responsibility for any debacle (current ministers take note!). The latter was never sent but the incident amply demonstrates how things could have gone either way. The letters also comment not only on big decisions and actions but also on those which seem minor but ripple with repercussions. Particularly telling is the chain of events that ensnared Alan Turing which led to his prosecution for indecency and eventually his chemical castration. The missives are also used to reveal the true personalities of the writers; for instance, there’s quite a startling piece which reveals Lenin as being far more Stalinist in his thinking than Stalin himself.
The performance aspects of the evening are simply and sensitively handled with a quartet of actors reading rather than reciting. Jade Anoka, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Jack Lowden and Tamsin Greig show their versatility and range. The latter makes both the funniest and most touching contributions with a short note by Sarah Bernhardt and a letter written by a mother just about to go into a Nazi gas chamber having made the decision to accompany her disabled child who has been ruthlessly singled out for death. Although a goodly proportion of the writing is from the pens of the famous it is probably those from less well know figures which strike home the hardest, a point that the two presenters endorse.
Letters Live has already released three compilations of their shows (click here and here) which are in a very similar vein, though without the discussion element. So, the format of this show is hardly revelatory and in the strictest sense this isn’t really theatre though I’m justifying its conclusion as there is a strong performance element. And because I find these snippets of history to be endlessly intriguing so I was glad to come across this further example of the sub-genre. There’s a Q and A towards the end where the question is debated as to whether letter writing is a dying art. The consensus seems to be that just as electronic media has not heralded the total disappearance of physical books, so letter writing and receiving can look forward to a resurgence of interest. I think if it does then it will be no more than a P.S. to its illustrious heyday but let’s wait and see.
Letters That Changed The World is available via the Intelligence2 website – click here
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