Benedict Cumberbatch show ‘Letters Live’ is a ‘shot in the arm’

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In 2013 Jamie Byng, CEO of publisher Canongate, gathered a number of familiar faces, including Nick Cave and Gillian Anderson, in a disused church in London and persuaded them to read a trove of letters in front of an audience for charity.

Cave chose the message he sent to MTV declining the Best Male Performer nomination, while Anderson echoed the letter that Katharine Hepburn wrote decades after Spencer Tracy’s death. Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh from shooting “The Imitation Game,” also attended and read a letter from World War II cryptanalyst Alan Turing, whom he had recently portrayed on screen.

Cumberbatch explains in the beginning Diversity, he felt “wary” about reading the dispatch, which Turing wrote during one of the lowest points of his life, when he was awaiting trial for homosexuality. “While feeling protective of the computer science geniuses,” Cumberbatch explains, “I really didn’t want to display them outside of the context of where I was performing or living.” There was also awkwardness in working out how to read. “Do I have to do that, be that? Or is it my own voice?” (The “Doctor Strange” actor ultimately decided to “lend” toward the letter-writer characters, especially if they speak in a particular dialect or voice).

By the end of his reading, Cumberbatch was a changed man. “It was very thrilling,” he says. “It was a very beautiful, profound way to honor (Turing) in a different way.” The experience was so touching that Cumberbatch even joined Bing as a co-producer on what has since become an annual event called “Letters Live”.

Woody Harrelson (Andy Paradise) in “Letters Live” 2023

Ten years later, “Letters Live” is a bona fide extravaganza sponsored by Montblanc, this year taking place on local Thursday evenings at London’s Royal Albert Hall (home to dazzling events including the world premiere of “No Time to Die” in 2021). Is. Time. Letter readers include Emma Watson, Olivia Colman, Stephen Fry and, of course, Cumberbatch himself.

“It’s a bit like skydiving,” explains Cumberbatch. “Once you get to the ground you want to go up again; Once you read a letter, you want to go and read it again. We have a lot of actors who say this is their favorite part of the diary. They always call us to check our availability, not the other way around.” It doesn’t hurt that “Letters Live” also has a charitable component, raising money for the literary organization The Reading Agency. Is.

Audiences won’t know in advance which letters they’re going to hear (they’re curated by a brain trust that includes Bing, Cumberbatch and “Letters of Note” writer Shawn Usher) and often even which celebrities. Are participating. (When Diversity Byng and Cumberbatch met during rehearsals and revealed that Woody Harrelson had been added as a surprise guest at the last minute.)

“It allows us to have an incredible blank canvas when we’re doing shows together because you have such a deep well in terms of the history of literary correspondence,” Bing says. This year’s missives include a typically eclectic selection, ranging from a 2,000-year-old letter from the Roman philosopher Pliny to a message sent by comedian Joe Lysette to British politician Suella Braverman a few weeks ago.

Are the producers of “Letters Live” worried that with traditional letter-writing a rapidly fading art, there will be little correspondence to choose from in years to come? “Pretty much,” says Cumberbatch. “It’s a slow art. And it can distort a moment in a way that allows for more space and reflection rather than reaction. We live in very heated, polarized times and a letter – not least because it has more than 140 characters – allows for nuance and ambiguity and a wider range of discussion and empathy or understanding, whatever that may be. .

“It’s a window into life, time and relationships that you can’t really get in any other medium,” he adds. “It’s quite unique that way. “It’s very intimate and revealing and special and it’s a shock for an artist right away.”

In terms of Cumberbatch’s upcoming performances, he is currently prepping for Dylan Southern’s adaptation of Max Porter’s novel “Grief Is the Thing with Feathers,” which will be released in the new year along with the Bob Dylan biopic “A Complete Unknown.” -Ready to go into production. ,

“And beyond that, I don’t want to say anything because nothing is really that certain, even without the strike,” he says. “But I’m very pleased for the industry at large that the flow of life can come back into it and hopefully help those people who have really struggled over the last few months to get an income, support themselves.” And “our industry has an even better future thanks to the things that have been secured in the negotiations.”

As far as the future of “Letters Live” is concerned, they already have a YouTube channel and, Bing says, he’s in talks about a podcast. “We’re very careful about what we do because it’s about a live experience,” says Prakashan Samrat, but he also says they’re looking at ways to expand the event . “It is extremely versatile as a format. We really just care about making people laugh and cry and making people feel connected to each other in the audience as well as to the artist and the material they’re bringing to life. That’s our thing. “We make letters come alive.”

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