Throughout Elise, a disembodied voice echoes her poems across the room. The cast are reverent. The atmosphere is chilling. Dread is never far away.
So much is made of the Beat generation’s men: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs etc. The women who created and rebelled alongside them are ghosts. Yet, in Elise, their indignation over the movement’s misogyny, and the people who can’t see Elise Cowen’s brilliance, is explosive at times, and completely at odds with the disparagement from many of the men who knew her.
Mono- and dialogues fizz along like a rainstorm as the cast finish each other’s sentences, flowing in and out of memories, anger and silence. A group of Elise’s friends are taking part in interviews about her life. Through friends, lovers and her parents, we learn about the fierce and fiery poet who dazzled women and made men feel incompetent.
Her mental illness is misunderstood by many, particularly the men in her life: ‘her breed of crazy wasn’t nature, it was nurture’, dismisses a former lover. After spells in and out of Bellevue Hospital, Elise is introduced to Allen Ginsberg, beginning her most involved and wild relationship, one that lasts until her death. He is notable, at these interviews, by his absence.
Dixie Fried Theatre pull the story in all directions: one moment there’s a joyous beatnik party, the next is an awkward conversation between former enemies – it is a beautiful ride. Their exploration of the beat scene and its repercussions spotlights a period of literary history that’s often romanticised beyond reality, and asks the uncomfortable question: what happens when the fun stops? Elise is a story that could be clichéd, but underneath everything is betrayal, loss and a host of aching hearts unable to express fondness, support, or their deep, raw pain.
Until Mon 27 Aug (not 8, 15), Pleasance Courtyard, 11.25am, £10-11 (£9-10).