Thursday, 19 August 2010

Emily Dickinson & I: The Journey of a Portrayal

It was all very intimate. A one-woman play about one woman, performed to fifty scholars and members of the public on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Theatre. The play consists of Edie Campbell, actress and self-confessed Emily Dickinson obsessive, and her partner Jack Lynch, Director and Lighting Designer with an audience pitched like awkward luddites between them. I feel almost in the way of Edie and Jack’s at once incredibly personal but also very professional relationship.

The play tells the story of Campbell’s journey to write a play about Emily Dickinson, but without putting words into the poet’s mouth. There is a great deal of care taken over this journey, a great deal of time also. But I fear that I am about to see a play that is not actually about Dickinson, but more about Campbell’s infatuation, and I am right. Campbell’s attempts to tell Emily’s story through her letters and poetry fail and by her own admission would have bored any audience but herself. What emerges is a deep insight into Campbell’s own life, her own passion for Emily and her relationship with Lynch. And whilst it is a journey, I do not feel that what abides is a portrayal of Emily Dickinson.

This is a play about the artistic expedition that one embarks on when telling someone else’s story. Not, as Campbell originally set out, a play about Emily Dickinson. Had she let go of her demons and realised that when one tells a story from beyond the grave, interpretation is key. Maybe if Campbell wasn’t so obsessed, in love, with the mesmerizing poet, then we would have gauged a sense of what it was like to be Emily. Putting words into someone’s mouth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when you have read all one thousand, seven hundred and seventy five poems and the existing one thousand and forty nine letters, and the figure in question is dead. I get the feeling that had Campbell been brave enough to use her accumulated knowledge to tell Emily’s story in full, as opposed to believing that an audience was there to hear her own autobiography, she would have written an exemplary play about Emily Dickinson.

Fascinating, innovative, interesting and well-directed this play may be, but there comes a time when the playwright should step back from their own work, assess their audience and be courageous enough to tell another’s story, particularly when the person in question was never able to do it for themselves.

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