Listen to Alan Cumming and Simon Callow read love letters at The Met

When the English writer Christopher Isherwood and the American artist Don Bachardy had their first date — on Valentine’s Day in 1953 — Isherwood was 48 years old and world famous. Bachardy was 18 and just out of high school.

They were together 33 years, until Isherwood’s death in 1986.

Between 1956 and 1970 they wrote nearly 250 love letters to each other, often masquerading as “a stubborn, gray workhorse” called Dobbin (Isherwood) and a “skittish, unpredictable, white kitten” (Bachardy).

Katherine Bucknell, who edited “The Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” published in 2014, has said the campy personae freed them to “explore the serious matters of love and commitment, and to reveal themselves more fully to one another.”

On Tuesday evening, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will stage a reading of the letters with venerable actors Alan Cumming and Simon Callow portraying Bachardy and Isherwood, respectively. The staging for the event will recreate David Hockney’s 1968 portrait of the couple, part of the museum’s current Hockney exhibit, on display through Feb. 25.

Erin Flannery, who works in artistic planning for MetLiveArts, said that scheduling the event the night before the 65th anniversary of the couple’s first date was a “total accident,” but one they likely would have loved.

“I’ve heard [from Bucknell] that they absolutely loved Valentine’s Day. They loved the kitsch of it, they didn’t mind even the Hallmark-card treacly elements of it,” Flannery said, “because however you wanted to celebrate it, it was wonderful.”

The Met show will focus on letters from the early ’60s when Bachardy first left California — and Isherwood — for school in London.

“The early letters between Chris and Don were these heartbreakingly glorious, beautiful love letters,” Flannery said, “where you really get the idea of The Animals, the characters they created for themselves.”

Flannery worked with Cumming for his December 2016 show “Max and Alan” (tied to the “Max Beckmann in New York” exhibit), which she called “one of the most rewarding projects” in her five years at the museum. It’s her first time working with Callow, but “he’s a legend.”

And it will actually be the first time that Callow and Cumming have worked together on stage, Callow told amNewYork via email. They know each other personally, he said, but their only prior collaboration has been as “disembodied voices,” once for a 2017 podcast version of “The Animals” and the other as actual animals, “in a charming cartoon called ‘Shoebox Zoo,’ in which Alan played an adder, I an embittered wolf.”

Callow said he never met Isherwood but had one phone conversation with him shortly before he died. It was brief but provides “a distinct recollection of both the voice and the man — very precise, very particular, very certain, very British,” despite “American vowel sounds” in words like “dance, chance [and] last.”

Callow was one of the first actors to publicly come out in Britain in 1984, but for him the project was “more personal than political,” he said.

“Having often been involved with men younger than myself — and being now married to one — I was very familiar with the dynamics of a relationship in which one partner was older and more celebrated than the other. It ain’t easy, for either party,” Callow said. “Don and Chris handled it as well as anyone can.”


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