The Last Word’s slogan is ‘a festival where words come alive.’ Having seen three exceptional shows over eight days, I couldn’t agree more. The talent captivated audiences in a refreshing and innovative way.
Ben Ecclestone has previously described his show as part lecture, part gig. Intrigued by what this entailed, I sat in the Studio Theatre on a rather inclement Saturday and waited in anticipation for the performance to begin. Jarring statistics about social media were sprawled across the presentation screen whilst Ecclestone launched into a monologue about the internet’s history. Blue lights flashed across his face, reminding me of the Internet Explorer logo. This was interspersed with unexpected sounds repeated and echoed on a loop pedal. His beatboxing contrasted with his beautiful harmonies and throughout the performance, the audience heard a wide variety of sounds, beats and tunes.
As Ecclestone passionately regurgitated facts and quotes about Cambridge Analytica, his speech got faster and the beats quickened. Bellowing into the microphone, he expounded to the audience about the “persuadables” – as the term suggests, voters who are thought to be easily persuaded via social media. This is possible as companies can buy and sell our personal data. Yet, it was not all doom and gloom: the pessimistic facts were juxtaposed by internet memes displayed in the background. Ecclestone’s great sense of humour made the afternoon both informative and fun. Still, I left reminding myself that once I got home I should investigate my laptop’s privacy settings.
Ecclestone’s show is particularly relevant today. Throughout the pandemic, most have depended on phones and computers to help get them through these difficult times. We have relied on social media even more in a desperate attempt to stay connected with others – even my 80-year-old Grandmother downloaded WhatsApp to join the family group chat! The immediacy of sending someone a message or email is striking compared to writing letters. Perhaps at the next Letters Live we will hear many letters that were written in lockdown, but for now, this year’s show focused on grief. This resonated with so many of us who have lost loved ones throughout the pandemic.
For most, written correspondence does not equate to art. Yet, the letters the audience heard at Letters Live were stunning expressions of language. As the acclaimed actors turned the pages, the letters could be heart-warming, heart-wrenching or hilarious – sometimes all three. The contents of the letters we were hearing were never meant for our inquisitive ears. Yet, because they were being performed, we all transformed into the recipient.
The audience does not know the star line-up in advance, nor do we have the selection of letters prior to the event. This is ideal because you aren’t focusing on a big name in front of you (although, wow, Benedict Cumberbatch!), but rather you intently listen to the words that are being spoken. Mohamedou Ould Slahi read his own powerful letter about imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay. I learnt of a WW1 soldier, Eric Appleby, who whilst at the Front, sent love letters to his sweetheart, Phyllis Kelly – these were performed beautifully by James Norton and Denise Gough. Louise Brealey accurately captured Emily Dickenson’s agony in losing her mother; Himesh Patel read a moving letter by J. H. Hammond about mourning his dog, a much-loved companion of 16 years.
Amongst the melancholy was uproarious humour: Rose Matafeo read a letter addressed to the Sydney Herald, where the author enthusiastically recounted every animal they had ever consumed (a lot). My personal favourites were Ade Edmondson’s retelling of a remorseful Robert Burns’ apology to Mrs Robert Riddell for his drunkenness and depravity the night before; and Armistead Maupin’s own comic and thoughtful letter to his 16 year-old-self.
Reading words out loud that aren’t meant to be can feel strange. If you are reading this blog post, you are most likely reading it in your head; as if reading a text, email or letter. It would feel unnatural for you to announce this review, as it’s meant to be read not heard. The Letters Live performers therefore have a challenge to animate the correspondence: their emphasis, tone and delivery was impeccable. In contrast, spoken word is most definitely meant to be heard and at the Poetry Slam, I listened to deeply personal, bold stories from young, vital voices.
Last Thursday, The Roundhouse Poetry Slam celebrated its fifteenth year. Established in 2006, the Poetry Slam allows young writers to exhibit their craft. The poets had the opportunity to impress the judges in three minutes across two rounds. This year’s judges included Candice Carty-Williams, Travis Alabanza, Zia Ahmed and us: the audience. After the second round, the audience were welcomed to vote for who their favourite poet was.
The pieces varied from exploring mental illnesses, eating disorders, identity, violence, childhood and family; enabling something relatable for all aspects of society. With spoken word, arguably the skill lies in the delivery. As the audience does not have the poem in front of them, the speaker needs to make as much of an impact as possible through their speech. I was deeply impressed by all of the performers, whose words filled the main space with such emotion and authority.
Aliya Abdi, who came third, eloquently spoke about fatherhood and identity: ‘I only know my father from the sounds of keys at midnight and not the whites of his smile.’ Runner-up, Noah Jacob’s first poem about London knife crime was potent and demanded our attention. The sibilance in the line ‘Splitting light on both sides, the blade shines and someone’s sun dips below the red horizon’ stuck with me.
Winner and – for the first time in Poetry Slam history – audience favourite Maureen Onwunali expertly combined sombre topics, such as depression, with humour: ‘I’m still hoping to outgrow my lactose intolerance.’ Her recitation of ‘Why I Rise: A Poem in Ten Parts’, depicts an engrossing narrative journey, where her vivid descriptions and ‘pretty metaphors’ enthral the audience.
All twelve finalists of the Poetry Slam performed exceptionally, and it was an evening of brilliance. The Poetry Slam encapsulates the message behind The Last Word; applying words in nuanced ways to come alive. Ben Ecclestone’s lecture was enlivened with his music and the actors at Letters Live manifested the words in the letters. After a closure of 18 months, The Roundhouse has come alive once more with an outstanding festival.