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Zoë recreates Stevie Smith's 1965 Cheltenham Festival performance

13 October 2015 21:03

On 11 October, the final day of the prestigious Cheltenham Literature Festival, poetry fans were treated to a very special performance by Zoë (who was photographed before the event for On the Inkpot stage – in a surprisingly warm marquee on Imperial Gardens – she delighted the crowd by recreating Stevie Smith's memorable poetry reading from the 1965 Festival.

The event began with a helpful talk by academic Will May, who has just published The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith. This weighty book, like the event, will surely help more readers to discover Smith's highly individual but often overlooked writing. In fact, finding new audiences was something of a theme for the event. As May explained, Smith's performances at venues such as festivals, schools and even department stores were instrumental in increasing the public's awareness of her work during the 1960s.

While Smith – who often wore schoolgirl-style pinafores and socks – may have been 'out of step' with the Swinging Sixties, in May's words, her poems had broad appeal and found appreciative audiences at Cheltenham and beyond. May suggested the poems' popularity was due to their strong characters and voices, lightning-fast shifts in tone and mood, and ability to blend low-brow and high-brow culture.

May praised Zoë's 'electrifying' performance as the quirky poet in Hugh Whitemore's biographical play, Stevie, which was staged in Chichester and Hampstead during 2014 and 2015, respectively. He then introduced Zoë to the enthusiastic audience.

Dressed very smartly, with Louboutin heels, Zoë jokingly apologised for not wearing socks – unlike Smith! She then read and sang the diverse selection of poems, by turns funny and touching, originally performed by the poet herself at the Festival, fifty years ago. The poems included intriguing monologues such as 'The Frog Prince' (who wonders if 'It is part of the spell / To be happy' at the bottom of a well, rather than desperate to be set free by a princess); 'The River God'; 'Infelice' (a woman deludes herself that her lover's 'silence speaks' of affection); 'The Jungle Husband'; and 'The Galloping Cat', which proved especially popular and was delivered with great gusto.

'Le Singe Qui Swing' (sung to the tune of 'Greensleeves') and 'Thoughts about the Person from Porlock' (who interrupted Coleridge as he wrote 'Kubla Khan') amused the audience. 'Do Take Muriel Out' (also sung), 'Harold's Leap' ('It may have killed you / But it was a brave thing to do'), 'The Weak Monk' and 'The After-thought' entertained and shocked in equal measure. 'Pad, pad' (a jilted lover laments that old age has robbed him of 'the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad', as both his pace of life and pulse have slowed) and 'I Remember' cast a cynical eye on romance and marriage. The powerful 'I'll have your heart' sent a chill down audience members' spines.

Of course, no performance of Smith's work would be complete without her most famous poem, the poignant 'Not Waving but Drowning', which Zoë read beautifully.

May discussed the challenges and pleasures of Smith's work with Zoë, who commented that she'd prepared for the poetry reading by listening to recordings of the poet's voice. (The British Library has produced a relevant CD, Stevie Smith: The Spoken Word, she noted.) Recordings were the key to performing the poems (especially those that were sung), as they enabled Zoë 'to hear [Smith's] stresses' in each line, as well as familiarise herself with the poet's distinctive London accent. Zoë emphasised that she's drawn to Smith's writing because she can 'relate to' it and enjoys its exploration of irony.

Zoë agreed with May's suggestion that the mood and meaning of poems can change depending on the kind of audiences that hear them. With Stevie, Zoë found some audiences were 'much quicker' than others when it came to grasping the subtle nuances of Smith's rich poems. She lamented the fact that many people miss out on Smith as her poetry is not always taught in schools.

Portraying Smith on stage was particularly demanding due to the tremendous number of lines Zoë had to learn for the play. She remarked that she chooses projects that 'scare' and 'challenge' her. Another reason for acting in Stevie is that Zoe 'thought [Smith] should be heard' by more people. Smith hasn't always received the level of attention and praise she deserves; in addition, there is little footage and few photos of her, which makes researching her life difficult. Zoë believes that Smith is sometimes overlooked because she 'wasn't glamorous' and chose to pursue an unconventional life, never marrying and living with her feisty 'Lion Aunt' in Palmers Green.

The event demonstrated that Smith's poems still have the power to capture an audience's attention, decades after they were originally published and read. As Zoë emphasised, Smith is a 'huge literary figure' and should be celebrated by lovers of poetry and performance.

Thanks to Janet for the link to the photos.

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