Written by: Oliver Rowse and James Lever
Dead Poets Live’s latest biography, using performance and archive footage, celebrates the life and work of poet Stevie Smith.
Written by Oliver Rowse and James Lever (who takes on the duty of MC for the night), the show marks the 50 year anniversary of Smith’s death in March 1971. We meet Lever and Juliet Stevenson, who plays Smith, on the candlelit stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Stevenson is already in character: fans of the poet will recognise the trademark headband. Lever introduces the poet: a recipient of awards and accolades, during her lifetime she produced 3 novels and 7 volumes of poetry.
Filmed in near-darkness, Dead Poets Live feels like more like a séance than a retrospective. Stevenson thoroughly inhabits the physicality of Smith, cultivating a look of unthreatening blandness, which served to mask a profoundly-gifted poet. Beginning with her earliest poetry, Stevenson’s reading is intercut with footage of our own times. The boredom of pandemic routine – shopping for groceries, piecing together an enormous jigsaw puzzle – sits alongside Smith’s observations of everyday life.
We rattle through Smith’s biography. Smith herself acknowledged that it was a “small and monotonous life” – at face value. Lever has fun with his interviewing role: the slightly pompous tone he adopts is underscored by a script packed with information and insight on the poet. As Stevenson reads excerpts, the picture drawn is of a poet so immersed in a style and image of her own making, it meant her work risked not being taken seriously.
What the show does really well is to take a good, hard look at what influenced Smith’s work. I Remember, The Frog Prince, Not Waving But Drowning are all given the lit crit treatment. The show places Smith not within a literary context exactly – she always was an outsider – but instead examines how she mixed eras, styles and references to create an entirely new kind of poetic voice.
Stevenson and Lever reveal the poet, bit by bit. We learn that Smith’s coolness and juvenile tone was the result of trauma – her mother dying of heart disease when Stevie was just 16. Stevenson is excellent, as Smith tries to bat away the depth of unresolved emotion. Harbouring both a fascination and horror of death, it became a central subject within her poems. The persona of Stevie – astute, grounded and unsentimental – is tested as voice-overs, voices booming from the upper circle of the theatre to collide with Smith’s own. The calm, orderly presentation of her work becomes something more ethereal, uprooted, as the poems begin to talk back.
Dead Poets Live works brilliantly as an introduction to the poet, but it endeavours to do more. Juliet Stevenson’s presentation of Smith is psychologically intimate: beneath the construct of Smith, the woman and the poet, the cracks appear. It’s closer to the truth than Smith herself would have permitted us to see. It’s a truly compelling way of presenting a biography: a format that Dead Poets Live use in atmospheric theatres like The Coronet – tantalisingly – lends to other writers, other voices.
Available here until 5 April 2021