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Zoë Wanamaker: ‘I had a lot to live up to’

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As she prepares to play poet Stevie Smith, Zoë Wanamaker talks to Lyn Gardner about acting through grief, finding her voice – and why she has never performed in the theatre that bears her father’s name

“I really envy her,” says Zoë Wanamaker of poet and novelist Stevie Smith. “She was a true original. I would have loved to have had her education and brain.” On stage, Wanamaker captures Smith’s larky, bruised spirit in Hugh Whitemore’s play Stevie, which explores the singular life of the bard of Palmers Green. Smith, who lived in suburbia with her beloved maiden aunt, adored sherry, battenberg cake and Agatha Christie mysteries because “her murders are so polite”. Wanamaker clearly finds being interviewed a murderous experience, but she is far too polite to object. Instead, she hides behind a tablet on which she has written notes like a reluctant but glamorous mature student being forced to take an exam.

“She was much more articulate than I am, much more witty, but she has a self-deprecation that I can relate to. I feel she speaks for me a lot of the time. She wants to be heard, and we all want to be heard.”

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