Seeing ‘Stevie’ at the Hampstead Theatre

Last Saturday, my friend Ali and I went to see Hugh Whitemore’s Stevie at the Hampstead Theatre.

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I’d been aware of Whitemore’s play for a while, and – without having read it – felt decidedly lukewarm. I’ve written before about my dislike of over-focus on a poet’s biography. This play, with the arch first-name title, sounded like the kind of gendered, slightly patronising hagiography which can eclipse the writer’s work.

But Stevie Smith is so infrequently tackled, inside or outside the academy. If something relating to her is going on, by God I will be there.

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Our trip didn’t start well when the Jubilee line suddenly failed. We got, cursing, onto a bus, and arrived too late to be allowed in. So I bought a cocktail with a lot of whisky, and we settled down to watch the first half on a screen in the bar. Zoë Wanamaker, in a red pinafore, was only faintly audible over the magnified coughs and shuffles of the audience. I drank, morosely.

But things picked up when they let us in for the second half. Seated on the right side of the stage, we were in the perfect position to appreciate Simon Higlett‘s incredible set. The play’s set in the house of Smith’s elderly aunt (the Lion Aunt) with whom she lived all her life, and the living room curved round us. It was like being right there: piles of books, glass decanters, ashtrays, coats on pegs next to the door inlaid with stained glass. I can’t convey the extraordinary level of detail. A bracket on the wall next to us held ornaments which I swear were covered in cobwebs. It was a pitch-perfect tribute to that kind of carefully-kept but dustily dignified house of an older person, where layers of detritus have built up until they’ve become a protected part of the landscape.

The foreground was great, but the background was better. Chunky, chopped-off trees popped up behind the top edge of the white wallpaper backdrop. At the left-hand-side, the wallpaper’s leaf pattern seemed to disintegrate, its white feathery leaves caught in the moment of blowing off. This was a house besieged by trees. A frighteningly untethered natural world was forcing its way in around the edges of this cosy suburban idyll. It was daintily done: never specifically alluded to in the script, but suggestively contextualising a writer who preferred to keep herself ‘well on the edge’.

The script itself deserves a separate post. But Wanamaker was fantastic. This is a play which needs only to be slightly overemphasised, or inflected in the wrong place, to turn Smith childish and affected. But Wanamaker was fantastically wry, never overplaying Smith’s whimsy, declaiming rather than giggling the poetry.

Smith lived, in some ways, what we’d register as a very small life. She worked as a secretary, stayed in her aunt’s suburban house. Towards the end of the play, we see her caring for her very frail aunt, doling out junket in a practical apron. Wanamaker carried the moment without self-pity, irritable briskness, or the sort of courage which flags up its own martyrdom. As I watched, I thought of Empson’s line in Some Versions of Pastoral, which I’ve often associated with Stevie Smith: ‘The feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so…’

At the end of the play, the lighting turned the trees autumnal. The Man – a third figure in the play, shadowing Stevie and her aunt – recited ‘Come, Death (II)’ over Smith in her chair. I suddenly noticed tears in Wanamaker’s eyes.

Stevie is on at the Hampstead Theatre until 18 April.

© Noreen Masud 2015

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