Ensemble Theatre, March 21


It could so easily drown in a sea of sentimentality, and were it made into a movie, it would sink without a trace. But playwright AR Gurney deftly buoyed his 1988 play so the sentimentality is always peripheral rather than the focus.

The two-hander has attracted such stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Rigg, Kathleen Turner, Lynn Redgrave, William Hurt, George Segal, Christopher Walken and Mel Gibson – often busy screen actors who need neither learn lines nor rehearse much, because they sit reading letters documenting a 50-year thwarted love affair. But that reading demands a world of finesse, especially of pacing, as was evidenced by Tina Bursill and Andrew McFarlane in this production directed by Rachel Chant.

Tina Bursill and Andrew McFarlane. Photos supplied.

Gurney swiftly delineates rich Melissa, the rebel, and poorer Andy, reticent and slightly stuffy, when they first meet at primary school. Melissa is also arty, abused, parent-hating, risk-taking and self-destructive. Andy, despite being less creative, has a deep and abiding love of writing, and an instinct for playing safe that masks his ever-burgeoning ambition. Like few pieces of theatre outside of Krapp’s Last Tape and Hamilton, Love Letters explores life-long trajectories – ones that don’t intertwine quite as expected.

Bursill and McFarlane inhabit these characters with the ease of wearing weekend clothes, while, as the text demands, tightly constraining their craft. Their eyes are glued to the page and there’s no interaction, yet somehow it’s real, living, bleeding theatre.

Melissa is already a woman when still a child; Andy is still a child when a man. Andy revels in expansive exposition that becomes more pompous with age, while Melissa routinely bemoans their epistolary relationship, longing for phone calls at least, if not face-to-face (and body-to-body) communication. She sees the letters as an impediment to their relationship; he mistakes them for their relationship.

In part the piece is about writing, itself: how a writer may be revealed or hidden by the words. Tone is elusive, like light in a painting. It’s also about the improbability of finding the perfect partner, and Andy and Melissa miss the boat that bore their names. They do connect, but in a way that can’t be sustained. Bursill and McFarlane excel, and although you leave entirely dry-eyed, you’re quietly grieving for the way life tends to turn out.

Until April 11.