The Letter Writer

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

07/03/2010 - 21/03/2010

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2010

Production Details

The Letter Writer combines New Zealand and French talent for a unique theatrical collaboration.

Audiences have the opportunity to see one of the best reviewed plays of Paris’ 2009/10 season at Circa during the New Zealand International Arts festival.

This production of The Letter Writer features performers from the original French production alongside local actors Helen Moulder, Peter Hambleton and Tim Gordon.

The French New Zealand collaboration reflects the unique journey of writer and director Juliet O’Brien – a New Zealander who after training under Jacques Le Coq in Paris has continued working in the theatre in France for over a decade.

Though still a resident of Paris, O’Brien has maintained strong ties with New Zealand over the years collaborating several times with Chapman Tripp award-winner, Stephen Gallagher, in productions in New Zealand and France with The Letter Writer the latest of these.

Another New Zealand collaborator is designer and 2009 Chapman Tripp award winner Tracey Monastra who has also worked with Juliet before and has adapted the set for this production.

The Letter Writer is the story of a man who writes letters and speeches for those who can’t do so themselves. When he meets a young exile who needs him to write letters to his wife and assist him in his application for Political Asylum, he is reawakened from his cynical and withdrawn personality. But as he becomes more a part of the young man’s life he is confronted with a situation in which protecting the exile from hurt may be more in the interests of the Letter Writer than the man he is supposed to be helping.

Parisian reviewers called it “a story of absolute power, of those who possess words over those who have none.” (Telerama) Pariscope wrote that the Letter Writer was “a wonderful gift… this play deeply touches our hearts without ever succumbing to excessive pathos. The play is aesthetically rich and strong and fills us with poetic imagery full of meaning. The result is poignant.” 

The Letter Writer
Circa Theatre
7-8, 11-15, 18-21 March

Poignant foray into Cyrano’s territory

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 09th Mar 2010

There is nothing quite as pleasurable as sitting in a theatre where two hundred individuals are made one while in the thrall of a play and all the elements of theatre coalesce in such a way that you know nothing will break the spell.

On Sunday night Juliet O’Brien’s The Letter Writer cast such a spell with her fluid, exciting and purposeful production of her very fine play about love and the power and control that language bestows on a man who is a descendant of the most famous letter writer in dramatic literature, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Unlike Edmond Rostand’s swashbuckling hero, Mr. Rouvesquen, who once wanted to be a writer, is a rather dour bureaucrat tied to his desk, though he does unwind with music on the CD player and a goodly selection of fine wines. He is played by Peter Hambleton in peak form.

He writes letters for people who have problems with writing and expressing themselves because they are inhibited or illiterate or foreigners. But like Cyrano, Mr. Rouvesquen gets involved emotionally, against his better judgment, in the affairs of one of his clients. He ignores the injunction in the poem by Yeats that he quotes: Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. His client becomes a surrogate son and he falls into the trap of trying to protect him by deceiving him.

Lansko (Benoit Blanc), a young man flees a totalitarian country, leaving behind his wife Leila (Anne Barbot), and seeks political asylum in a neighbouring country, where he asks Mr. Rouvesquen for assistance in applying for asylum as well as writing love letters to Leila.

Comic relief is provided by the other clients and there is a farcical postman (Tim Gordon) who suffers from logorrhea. A lady (Helen Moulder) who does not want her children to bury her next to her sister, while a beekeeper (Tim Gordon), who needs a speech to give at his daughter’s wedding, when asked by the letter writer in some anger why he persists with the speech replies “Because a person who doesn’t master their words…” but is, poignantly, unable to finish his sentence.

Tracey Monastra’s set design adaptation of the original stage production in France brilliantly transforms moveable panels into office furniture and walls as well as providing dark alleyways in the totalitarian country, which is powerfully suggested by an occasional searchlight prowling the buildings and Jennifer Lal’s eerie lighting and Stephen Gallagher’s haunting music and sound effects.

It is a thrilling evening in the theatre: it is acted to the hilt by all, its production values are superb, and it combines comedy with tragedy in such a way that the play reverberates long after seeing it. Possibly the sleeper production of the Festival and, obviously, should not be missed. 
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Powerful socio-political and poetic treat

Review by John Smythe 08th Mar 2010

On the face of it, this play – as the title suggests – is about a professional letter writer and the dilemmas that arise from his work. More importantly, his experience allows us to confront the global issue of refugees by empathising with both sides of the equation and asking ourselves what we would do. And finally, in pitching a moral dilemma, it affirms the power and efficacy of knowledge and truth.

The Letter Writer aesthetically blends the ordinary and extraordinary, the comical and tragical, petty problems and life-threatening concerns, objective observation and evocations of subjective experience, within the context of an ever-changing world. It is a compelling, confronting and finally deeply moving essay on the nature of exile.

Written and directed by Juliet O’Brien, first in French (in 2008) and now in English – apart from the made-up language of the fictitious country Morland – the play premiered in France where it has so far enjoyed three seasons. Now O’Brien has re-mounted it for a two-week season at Circa Theatre as part of the NZ International Arts Festival, with two of the French cast and three locals.

Peter Hambleton is wonderfully focused and contained as Mr Rouvesquen, the letter writer. Impatient with his clients and growing more and more alienated from the world and fond of his wine, Rouvesquen remains haunted by the moment of false glory that caused him to give up writing literature for this functional, humdrum job. His immediate quest is to find the ‘correct version’ of a piano sonata he keeps playing in his office, except when clients ask him not to.

As timid Mr Ralph, a bee keeper who is desperate not to embarrass his upwardly mobile daughter when he gives a speech at her wedding to the son of a managing director, Tim Gordon delivers the first of three superbly crafted roles.

The well-heeled and slightly eccentric Mrs Balia, finely nuanced by Helen Moulder, wants to leave a will that is devoid of emotion, but her profound upset at unspecified hurts inflicted by her family make it impossible for her to clearly brief Rouvesquen.  

Meanwhile we have witnessed a young couple seeking escape, for him at least, from a country we will come to know as Morland, ruled by a repressive regime. On arriving in Zurenken (also fictitious), Lansko seeks the services of Rouvesquen to write to his wife Leila and pen his application for political asylum and citizenship.

It is a letter of introduction from Professor Pentra (Gordon) – who will serve as a letter-writer for Leila – that stops Rouvesquen insisting that he no longer takes on such cases. Lansko, a carpenter and construction worker, offers to pay his way by undertaking some much-needed renovations.  

Benoit Blanc’s Lensko grows with great subtlety from a subservient supplicant to a confident man able to express himself freely – albeit in a language he is just learning – and secure his own living. His newly pregnant wife, Leila, is beautifully created by Anne Barbot. Their scenes together are poetically expressive, not least in a deeply poignant and illusory dream sequence involving a tarpaulin.*

Blanc’s training in physical theatre (at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq and with Alain Gautré) liberates his highly credible character in some of the less naturalistic sequences. His manifestation of anger at a betrayal of trust and his progress from that, and the hopelessness it engenders, towards finding strength in facing the truth, makes for very powerful theatre.

Also memorable is Hambleton’s delineation – in another dream sequence – of Rouvesquen’s transition from functional objectivity to emotional involvement as he ‘becomes’ the lost and loving Lansko craving intimacy with Leila.

All the characters are in exile, in one way or another, be it externally- or self-imposed.  Tim Gordon’s Enrix has become postman (in Zurenken) because he is incapable of talking to people without obsessively and compulsively swearing and cursing about all and sundry. Leila’s spying and collaborating Morlandian Neighbour (Helen Moulder) is in exile from her conscience.  

Although both Morland and Zurenken have the tone and feel of Eastern and Western Europe, New Zealand is not immune from the situations and dilemmas this play addresses. The Letter Writer is a classic example of a work that achieves a timeless universality by being ‘culturally specific’; of exposing realities by being fictitious.

Stephen Gallagher’s original music and sound design (used in the French production also) is excellent, as is Jennifer Lal’s lighting of Tracey Monastra’s ‘set design adaptation’, involving moving modules and furniture within the large columns of the Mary Stuart set.

Just one niggle: I can’t see why Lansko and Leila need to write to each other in Zurenkenian (expressed in English in this production) rather than in their native Morlandian. Surely the ‘authorities’ would be more suspicious of letters written in ‘foreign’ languages …  

But as with the non-naturalistic conventions used, such a device may be forgiven given the outcome. As a bicultural practitioner, Juliet O’Brien is to be celebrated for enriching the Festival with this powerful socio-political and poetic treat.
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*I’m told the tarpaulin scene is particularly evocative in France, where refugees huddle awaiting their fates in temporary shelters covered with tarpaulins.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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