Elise Cowen. The poet who disappeared from history, leaving little more than an envelope of burnt verses as her legacy. In these dramatised interviews which were recorded after her suicide, various figures from Elise’s life struggle to put the writer into words. They are battling against the will of Elise’s traditional parents, who would rather their daughter’s mental health problems and alternative lifestyle were buried with her. In the wild hedonism of the 1960s creative scene in New York, Elise was often ignored due to attention on her partner, well-known poet Allen Ginsberg. In this production of Elise, Dixie Fried Theatre and Bristol Spotlights are shining a light on a woman who stands in the shadows of literary history.

The poet who disappeared from history

The interview setting was nicely captured by all the performers, who showed varying degrees of awkwardness and discomfort. Elise’s professor and lover, Donald Cook, was conveyed with a great dislikeability and arrogance. He received frequent guffaws from the audience with his startling comments. Another stand out was Carol, a former lover of Elise’s. The conflicted nature of this character was particularly well carried as though she felt tenderly towards the poet. Carol was desperate to move on with her life, thus being complicit in erasing Elise.

The attention to detail behind the 60s set was excellent. A brown colour scheme imbued the production with a wash of sepia that made it seem like we had fallen into the past. Despite these strengths in the set, staging proved the main weakness of Elise. A split stage effect unfortunately filled the performance space with too much activity at once. It became difficult to follow one scene without being distracted by another and stillness would have allowed for a more powerful performance.

Elise sadly came just short of capturing the elusive woman and I left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by its conclusion. However, this production does well to convey the tragedy that such a promising talent was lost.

Reviews by Carla van der Sluijs

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The Blurb

New York, 1962. Beat poet Elise Cowen commits suicide and her family incinerates all but eighty-three of her poems. Elise uncovers the story of this extraordinary poet, intertwining her surviving work with dramatised interviews, revealing the thrilling and hedonistic culture of the Beatniks and the oppressive pressures that cut her life short. Dixie Fried Theatre's moving piece of new writing brings to light the life and legacy of a woman shrouded in Allen Ginsberg's shadow. '[Callis] is a young writer to watch, so watch and listen' (Anna-Maria Murphy 'Tristan & Yseult’ Kneehigh).