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Jude Law gets horny at Hay

Reading a cheeky and poignant love story in letters

Simon Willis | May 25th 2015

Jude Law swaggered onto the stage last night at Hay Festival. He was there to take part in a reading of Simon Garfield’s “My Dear Bessie”, an epistolary play constructed from letters exchanged during the second world war by two young lovers, Chris Barker and Bessie Moore. The correspondence is incomplete. As we learn early in the play, Chris, who was stationed first in north Africa and then in Greece, had to destroy a cache of Bessie’s letters, read opposite Law by Louise Brealey, to save space at an army encampment. The missing links are subtly sketched in by their granddaughter, Irena (Mariah Gale). In spite of the gaps in the written record, Garfield has shaped a love story that’s both cheeky and poignant. In front of 1,000 people—mainly female—in the Tata Tent, it got a standing ovation.

The play begins in north Africa in 1943, with Chris at a depot surrounded by pines and eucalyptus trees. He describes sitting on the pyramids and thinking what a “colossal case for trade unionism” they are. The first half—the part from which Bessie’s letters are missing—is full of Chris’s cocky and flirtatious charm. “If you and I were together,” he writes, “I guarantee we could ignore [the air raids].” At the end of one letter he says he’s going to kiss his signature, and that if she does the same it’ll make “a complete, unhygienic, circuit.” Law, with a film-star tan and swathed in a shabby-chic double-breasted jacket, revelled in Chris’s impetuousness, romance and occasional corniness. But most of all, he revelled in the horniness. “You are”, he said with a sly eyebrow, “a terrific love-maker by letter.”

In 1944 Chris moved to Greece. It’s from this point on that we hear Bessie’s voice, delivered with mousy mischief by Brealey. Bessie is a worrier who complains about her digestion. She is earnest and patriotic, quoting Churchill and the New Statesman, and getting disheartened by reports on the Nine O’Clock News. But she’s no less romantically entangled. Brealey drew laughs from her lustiness, one of the biggest coming when she said, with a grin, “If you were here I’d bust your braces.” “I’m an iceberg waiting to be roused into a fire,” she said breathlessly, her lushness offset by a dry sense of humour. “Talk about untapped resources.”

A tantalising aspect of epistolary stories is what happens in the silences between letters. In the second half, the play begins to darken and complicate, the real world rudely interrupting the fantasy. First, Chris is taken prisoner and no news arrives for a month. When he’s finally released, he begins to pull back from talk of marriage, albeit with his levity intact. “I do not want to get married until I am sure that natural causes—including your cooking—cannot separate us.” Then he comes home for a visit, and the lovers see each other face to face. All we hear of it is his apology. “I’m sorry we wasted those five nights in Bournemouth, and I’m sorry for that error in judgment regarding the salmon.”

It’s a measure of the actors’ skill that, sitting in chairs and reading from scripts, they managed to capture these quick but delicate shifts in tone and chemistry. That mix of light and dark is the essence of Garfield’s drama, which wraps the revealing chatter in personal mystery. We feel privy to their relationship, even as parts of it remain utterly private. At the end of last night’s reading, a picture of the couple on a park bench in Greenwich, taken when they were in their 90s, was shown on a giant screen. “When they were alive,” their granddaughter says, “I never thought they were romantic sorts.” 

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