Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Kathleen Ann Thompson becomes Emily Dickinson in two contrasting yet complimentary performances of William Luce’s one-person play, one spoken, the other spoken and danced.
A tour of the life, personality and heart of 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. The text of William Luce’s 1976 play is littered with the letters and poems of Dickinson, so much so that it has been estimated that at least half of the text is by Dickinson herself. For two hours – 1 hour for each performance on separate days – we witness Emily come alive as if we were inhabiting the century in which she lived.
Thompson appears on stage through some white muslin curtains and Emily Dickinson comes alive in front of our very eyes. There is a simple table and chair, a box of papers and poems to which our actor returns at various points. She has a command of the whole stage, using every corner and space throughout the hour long piece, which reflects all the aspects of Dickinson that she is portraying; family life, her amorous life, her deep and wounded poetic self. Her command of the space extended into the audience as she looked out into the garden and orchard which was always in the same place as she peered out of her imaginary window, or perhaps French doors, and she always travelled to the same vantage point when the text called for it.
The two performances, although billed in two perspectives, one as dance and one as drama, are nevertheless very closely related. She is dressed differently in the different performances, although white in both performances, of course, as this is the only colour Dickinson would wear. In the drama performance she wears a rather maid-like frock, and in the dance version a rather balletic dress, which facilitates movement but also prepares for a more fluid and musical vocal performance that accompanies the dancing. Thompson is so exacting and studied in her physical portrayal of Dickinson in the ‘drama’ version, using a wide palette of gestures to paint her picture of Dickinson’s personality, that no text is wasted and seems always to serve the physical presence on stage, whether this is just barely hinted at in the ever changing expressive visage, or is explicit in a momentary pose.
In the dance version it is as though this physicality is set free and leads the spoken text to ever greater heights of expression. The physical colouring in the drama version comes alive and is extended in the dance version, extended from gesture into dance so that the dance leads and unfolds a dimension that seemed to be there in essence in the drama version. Thompson dances her way around the spaces of the stage, but always at the service of the text. In the dance version the whole piece is knitted together with a collage of music, from Bach to Brubeck in a plethora of styles. Although there were so many excerpts of music accompanying the performance, of vastly differing styles, it was surprising that this did not create any dissonance and worked as though seamless and organic, following the multi-faceted layers of Dickinson’s personality and in no way haphazard. The music thus follows the emotional rhythm of the overlaid, and relatively fast paced, shifting emotional narrative of the play – for the play is not chronological in its purview.
It was a shame that the drama only version was not an evening performance like the dance version, for the traffic noise during the day at Greenside was off-putting to say the least. A piece like this needs real silences in moments of intimacy and reflection and not be interrupted by what seemed like noisy souped-up hot rods speeding by. This is a problem that Greenside needs to address and I was quite frankly shocked that they rent out to hard-pushed theatre companies what is effectively a portable fibreglass shed with no insulation. Next year PLEASE insulate this space Greenside managers!
Extraneous noise aside, this is one of the performances that will stick in my mind from this years fringe.
Thompson brings alive the complicated, childlike and intensely soulful nature of her subject, with great skill and charm. From the frightened and timid daughter, the sweet and sociable youngster to the deeply inspired and wounded misanthropic poet.