The Long Letter - Play Review
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
Mary Ann Hunn (1747-1827) is a woman whose name is lost to time. How do you rescue a life sunk into obscurity? Do you rush through everything that happened in chronological order in the hope that the flurry proves exciting? Do you select a small slice of time that is rich in psychologically juicy detail? Do you try to connect your subject to recorded history, striving for a reflected glory that makes them shine? Heck, what makes a life less ordinary? What makes a story worth telling?
In the case of Mary Ann Hunn, the narrative hooks are her proximity to George Canning, a British Prime Minister for six months in 1827 - she was his mother - and her commitment to creative freedom at a time when it was safer for a woman to take refuge in the conservative holding-station of "respectability" [aka making a good marriage].
The Long Letter, directed by Sophie Robson, is a one hour play drawn from the book 'George Canning Is My Son' by Julian Crowe, which will be published with Unbound later in 2020. It rattles through decades of Mary Ann's life at such a pace that no single event has a chance to breathe, yet sprightly performances by a cast of five (each of whom play multiple roles) and a script that bursts with witty turns of phrase leads to many moments where profundity cuts through the breathless whirligig.
"All this I have endured, and yet I live," says Helen Moore, who plays Mary Ann as her older self, before Daphne Jayasinghe takes over to say, " I was 17 and thrown upon the surface of the world."
The writing has a dignifying existential quality, as a portrait emerges of a woman, widowed early, who navigated her life according to passion rather than planning. This led to a precarious, unpredictable existence with financial and emotional sharks constantly nipping at her heels. Mary Ann chose to act on the stage, and fell for a volatile, talented co-actor.
Watching her fate play out, as someone who has just started an acting course, made me wonder what idealistic insanity seizes people like me who make such choices. Is it a compulsive desire for the fleeting sense of connection that come from performing a truth to an audience? Does it get you anywhere beyond the present?
A source of enjoyment running throughout the production staged on a tiny, upstairs-in-a-pub area was the resourceful use of props and costumes. As two actors sat on chairs two feet apart, narrating a scene where they wrote letters to each other from geographically distant locations, they passed a scrap of cream material forwards and backwards to visualise their correspondence. All five actors changed their accents, physicality and stage positions with an adaptiveness that would have made Darwin proud. There were tantalising hints of the delicious psychodrama that could have taken hold if the script was less obsessed with including everything that could be deemed interesting, speeding through all the pages of Mary Ann's life so quickly that some of the words blurred. Still, despite the rushed pacing, The Long Letter was a success on its own terms. It rescued a woman from obscurity. And that woman, Mary Ann Hunn, is worthy of the effort. Her battle to exist as a single mother while pursuing her own creative fulfilment is one that still resonates today, over 200 years later. This relevance creates a gumbo of despair and hope. Despair that some things never change, hope because women have long had the grit to fight.
The Long Letter ran from 14-18 January at:
The White Bear Theatre,
138 Kennington Park Road,
Review by Sophie Monks Kaufman