There’s an overwhelming feeling of self-importance among the human race; an unavoidable subjective notion that we are special and, in the early stages of life, invincible. Then there is the realisation of our humanity. We are mortal and unfortunately we will all die at some point. On the grand scale of things, the human race is but a mere blink of a pair of very old and very wise eyes. Writer Stevie Smith was always very matter of fact about her humanity and like many I’m sure, kept her fellow Earth-dwellers at arm’s length. As she says in this play, “I always liked the thought of people…”
Virtually forgotten now, Smith was a popular poet in the 60s and shared a house with her aunt in the suburbs of Palmers Green until the latter’s death. Despite this leap in popularity, Smith did have early success with her first book, Novel on Yellow Paper, published to great acclaim in 1936, and the following year a volume of poetry, A Good Time Was Had by All – again received very well. Two more books and volumes of poetry led Smith up to the 50s where her work slipped from fashion, before she released Not Waving but Drowning, which placed her firmly as a poetic icon.
It’s deeply sad for someone such as Smith to now be forgotten. But do we place too much emphasis on longevity? Why must we feel the need to leave a legacy once we’ve gone? Hugh Whitemore’s Stevie focuses on the woman herself who, through the exceptional Zoë Wanamaker, takes the audience through a somewhat unhappy life, set in the confines of Smith and her Aunt’s (Lynda Baron) very lovely home. Wanamaker narrates with warmth and conviction, confiding in her transfixed public. Her voice is soothing; her words are at times cutting but always hilarious. Taking what one can only assume was Smith’s own vocal playfulness and mixing with her work, Whitemore gives us a delightful delivery of language: “an orgy of boredom”. Wanamaker’s deadpan expression, splendid especially when explaining a precocious dislike for her father at age three and suicidal thoughts at eight, adds great emphasis to the air of light-hearted and glorious disgust she has of those around her. A wonderful character has been offered here, and despite her rather unorthodox and eccentric views, which some may find ambiguous, there’s always something utterly endearing and bewitching about this fascinating woman.
Simon Higlett’s set is the first thing the audience sees and at such close proximity it immediately adds comfort to the experience. The effort that has been put into piecing the room together to look the way it does is staggering; we are all there as accomplices to Smith’s life, confined to this one room.
Director Christopher Morahan has given Whitemore’s piece room to breathe. Morahan and Wanamaker have both ensured that the audience gain much more than meets the eye and depth is created through several scenes that are crossed together, combining different periods in Smith’s life. Not once is it confusing.
The cast are outstanding. Baron is especially good when Aunt is aged and near-to-death and Chris Larkin always convinces in a variety of roles. Both perform easily with Wanamaker, who in turn is totally immersed in the character.
Stevie is truthful and haunting. It makes one think not only of their own expiry date but invites discussion on the very essence of humanity. I think you will each take something different from this piece – deeply speaking anyway. What is obvious is the strength of every aspect of the play and mainly, the phenomenal talents of Wanamaker. This is really special.
Stevie is playing at Hampstead Theatre until 18 April. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website.