Love Letters: a play whose simplicity stuns LLF audience

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn February 21, 2016

The AR Gurney play ‘Love Letters’, famously known as an ‘actor’s favourite play’ which uses an epistolary form, mostly used by novelists, spellbound a huge Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) crowd on Saturday night. The effect was magical to say the least.

The last item on the opening day of the two-day LLF 2016, this Hameed Haroon-directed play presented the two characters, Melissa Gardner (played by Rehana Saigol) and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (played by Imran Aslam), sitting side by side at their own tables reading the notes, letters and cards written over nearly 50 years of a relationship that passed between them throughout their separated lives. Ms Saigol and Mr Aslam delivered their lines with amazing skill, which was peppered with nostalgic ‘musical interludes’ that gave the lines depth and feeling. The musical choice was subtle and brought forth the director’s understanding of the time period, and the lines written.

Starting with ‘Summertime’, an Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong classic, the mood was quickly set for the two accomplished actors to narrate, with great feeling, the notes and letters exchanged between these two school day friends. As the letters changed from innocent exchanges to a more mature ‘letter writing’ period, so did the musical interludes with pieces like ‘My Boy Lollipop’ to that Nat King Cole classic ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’. As the two characters aged and their lives took two very different directions, so did the musical mood of the interludes, like that Elvis classic ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ and by the time the rebel in both emerged we heard another Marlyn Monroe classic: ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’. The effect was taking the audience on a memory trip the likes of which we have seldom seen in Lahore.

The twists and turns in the life of Melissa on the one hand, who ends up with a failed marriage, and that of Andy on the other, who passes Yale and law school and becomes a US senator with a wonderful wife and fine children and a name and position in society, are depicted by the prose that they exchange. My favourite song, a Liza Minelli classic, ‘Maybe This Time’ sent goose pimples and memories racing through me.

The tragic end of Melissa came when she is separated from her children and finally passes away leaving Andy to write: “The thought of never again being able to write to her, to connect to her, to get some signal back from her, fills me with an emptiness which is hard to describe”. The mood was set and Imran Aslam was by this time at his best when he said: “I know now that I loved her”.

As the crowd got up to leave it was Elvis Presley reminding us that “It’s Now or Never”. To be honest the script touched the lives of the audience in one way or another, at least it did remind me of days gone by, though my Melissa and my Andy still live one, at least for the time being.

Performed all over the world by numerous actors, the most famous being the December 2007 performance of Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones to raise $1 million for Taylor’s AIDS foundation.

In 1992, the play was adapted to Urdu in India under the title “Tumhari Amrita” with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh. This duo in 1992 brought the play to Pakistan.

For the people of Lahore who missed out on Saturday, there is another repeat of the play on Sunday (today). I would suggest that those who know what I am talking about make the best of this chance.


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