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Dickinson’s Room review (Buckingham Arms Hotel, Adelaide Fringe Festival)

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Set away from main Fringe venues at the Fringe Lodge (aka The Buckingham Arms), Dickinson’s Room is a site-specific work adapted from the poems and prose of Emily Dickinson.

Bad Neighbour Theatre co-founder Charlotte Day and actor Miranda McCauley (playing Emily) have brought Dickinson’s Room to Adelaide from New York, via Edinburgh Fringe. Three small, hot attic rooms above this pub become the space Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) famously never left in her father’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

McCauley is tremendous as Emily, delivering a performance that is flawless in its intensity. Day acts as midwife to the show; dressed in period costume, she is sometimes Emily’s nurse, invisible musical director, our chaperone. Never intrusive, she ghosts the show, making sure no one is lost as we follow Emily’s whims from room to room. On which note, wear sensible shoes: this is physical theatre in the sense that you will be physically involved. McCauley makes the most wary of us suddenly suggestible and open to play.

The play manages to both span many years and feel like a single visit with a dear friend.

At the show’s beginning, Day (only 22 – an Oxford graduate and, by the way, fluent in Russian) tells us about the popular concept of the poet as mystic, a theme embodied by the liminal, dreamlike power of Dickinson’s Room. Structurally, the play manages to both span many years and feel like a single visit with a dear friend. Day weaves Dickinson’s poetry (including her envelope poems) and letters seamlessly through Emily’s dialogue with the audience.

The result is intimate, vivid and profound. Day’s assured writing proves she sure knows her Dickinson, and this reflects in McCauley’s performance: Emily is, by turns, turns playful, affectionate, and genuinely alarming. “We’re ridiculous people,” she says, “so we shall look ridiculous.” We don’t hesitate when she asks us to turn our backs and cover our ears while she recites a poem, or when she has us play at being on a ship at sea, or join her in any number of the tasks that order her life of solitude.

Dickinson’s Room, in its portrait of the poet, is also a sensitive portrait of mental illness.

It’s sweltering upstairs, but we cease to notice. Spun into the fabric of the play, we notice the details of Dickinson’s life. We notice each other. In one scene, we settle on the floor around Emily to listen to Beethoven Sonata No. 12 in A-Flat Major. In her favourite few bars, she clutches my hand and, leaning in, I can smell the strawberry she smeared on her face earlier, heating up like compote.

Dickinson’s Room, in its portrait of the poet, is also a sensitive portrait of mental illness, candidly addressing Dickinson’s suicidality and obsessive-compulsive traits. Emily is no madwoman in the attic; Bad Neighbour Theatre realise her as a complete and complex woman. Despite the number of us here, we never feel crowded. Just as Dickinson made her solitude rich and full, we experience how expansive she made her life in this tiny space.

Despite her chronic longing for the end, we are with Emily as she suddenly doubts – fears, even – the impending relief of death. She gifts us each one of her fragmentary poems, in a handmade envelope. She can finally leave her room. As I leave, down the narrow stairs, I find some deep, strange grief and genuinely, noisily sob my way out into the pub. It feels like I’ve attended a séance.

It’s no hyperbole to say that Dickinson’s Room is a rare, brilliant gem, well worth the brief trek to an unusual venue.

Dickinson’s Room plays until March 4 at Buckingham Arms Hotel as part of Adelaide Fringe Festival.

Photo of Emily Dickinson at age 16 via Creative Commons 

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