Zoë brings poet Stevie Smith back to life

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Remarkably it’s 17 years since Zoë Wanamaker was last at Chichester Festival Theatre in a memorably blood-splattered Elektra.

Now she is back in Hugh Whitemore’s award-winning play Stevie, an insight into Stevie Smith and her poetry – a world Zoë has found utterly absorbing.

Since Elektra, Zoë’s husband Gawn Grainger has appeared several times in Chichester, prompting them to put down roots in the area for a while.

“We rented a place for about six years during that time at West Ashling, which was great. But we couldn’t have afforded to stay in the area!”

Never during that time, however, did Zoë and Gawn work together: “It’s just something we try to avoid doing. It’s nice to have one person at home and one person working. It’s just easier that way. He would just make me laugh on stage anyway. I wouldn’t be able to suspend the belief!

“But I am so lucky he is such an incredibly-generous human being,” says Zoë, and that makes working in the business so much easier. Marry an actor, and you will have someone who understands the task and, more particularly, the degree of absorption it invariably demands.

“When I am doing something, such as this, I become so wrapped up in it that you really can’t focus on anything else, and that requires a lot of understanding from your partner. I do bring the work home, particularly in rehearsals. I assume it is the same with other people, but I am sure there are people that can just switch it off and let it flow away, but I can’t. I get completely absorbed in what I am doing, particularly as you get towards the previews. There is still so much to learn, so much to do. Once you are performing in front of an audience, you are performing in front of a third person that just wasn’t there. With the previews, you are still discovering. Once you have started, you are still learning.

“When you open, you are at a height of tension, which sometimes can be very helpful. Sometimes it can be very obstructive. Sometimes the tension can be too much. It can get to the point where you are so frightened that you cannot speak. I have had stage fright. I had it so badly that it once prevented me from working for a while, but then luckily you move on, but I still get very bad first-night nerves. You really do put yourself through it. Sometimes you have to get rid of that critic sitting on your shoulder. You’ve to get rid of that demon, and then you can start to relax.

“My stage fright was a long time ago. I think it was to do with being in a long run at the RSC. It was a very odd experience. I stopped in the middle of performing and started to walk off stage, and there was a very frightened stage manager waving me back on. I thought ‘Where am I? Am I in the middle of a dream?’ I didn’t know what was happening. It scared me. It really scared me a lot, but then something comes along and you get back on track.”

But the truth is it never gets easier, says Zoë, despite her huge stage credentials. The older you get, the harder it becomes: “The more frightened you are,” she admits.

But with Stevie, Zoë – perhaps best-known as TV’s Susan Harper across 11 series of the sitcom My Family – is driven by the fact she knows it is a fabulous play: “What Hugh has done is brilliantly woven 90 per cent of her writing into the piece. He has segued into a poem without you realising that is what he is doing. The poems are not just plonked there. In that sense, the play is brilliantly orchestrated and beautifully written.

“But it is a strange piece. It is not a recital. There is no terrible conflict. But it is the story of an extraordinary but ordinary person that lives in suburbia but has this incredible brain. It is a quite a complex piece. Hugh was quite struck by her. He watched her on TV and was completely taken with her.”

Since her death, Stevie Smith’s work has faded somewhat from people’s minds: “I think it is because some of her poems have very complicated rhythms. They are not easy to pick up or to read. Somebody said she was an acrobat of simplicity. It’s about trying to find all those acrobatics that she does, those things that seem strange, that seem somehow off kilter and not quite straightforward. Not Waving But Drowning is a fantastic example of human psyche and an insight into her own obsessions with death and so on, but also she did have a great sense of humour. She did have a depressive side, though, but she was always going back home to her aunt. She would go and stay with people all the time. That was her great love, to go to stay with people and adopting families, but the aunt was always her mother and father figure, the person she would always go back to.”

Zoë has read up about Stevie Smith as much as she possibly can in an effort to ‘find’ her: “That’s what you are constantly trying to do.”

But there is not a lot of film to look at. Instead, as Zoë says, you have to go on instinct and find her through her poetry.

“I am completely absorbed by her. I have two biographies of her that I am skipping between. Each of them gives you a different insight into her, what she was like. She was a tiny little thing. She was talking about having put on weight, and she went up to eight stone! I hate her! But she was also a great laugher, really such a fascinating person.”

Stevie is in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until May 24.