Juliet Stevenson was born in Essex and grew up in towns across England, moving each time her army officer father received a new posting. She attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was part of its “new wave,” which included actors like Kenneth Branagh and Alan Rickman. Stevenson began her stage career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 and has won acclaim in dozens of roles over the years, including nominations for four BAFTAs and four Laurence Olivier Awards, as well as an Olivier win for Death and the Maiden. Although best known as a stage actress, Stevenson has also undertaken major film and TV roles, most notably in 1990’s Truly, Madly, Deeply. In 1999, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She lives with her partner, anthropologist Hugh Brody, and their two children in North London.
Stevenson chose to read Emily Dickinson’s poem “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” for our film series. She tells us: “I love Emily Dickinson more and more as life goes on. For me, you need a fair amount of life experience to understand her—or perhaps I mean to sound her depths. Extraordinary for a poet who barely left her house in her own lifetime—perhaps proof that great creative gifts like hers don’t require the world out there to feed or shape their work; it can all be forged from the internal life.
“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” is one for our times…perhaps for every time, like much of her poetry—hence its lasting greatness and relevance. But it struck me when choosing it, that at a moment in history when our entire planet is under serious and imminent threat from climate crisis, it serves as a call-out. For many people, the science of climate change—the terrifying truths of what we have done to our planet and what is in store for us if we do not do everything in our power to avert it— can lead to anxiety, denial, despair. Emily Dickinson refers to having heard hope “in the gale,” and “in the chillest land”—metaphorical places where life is perhaps being lived at its most harsh and desperate. But Hope sings on: her tune is inextinguishable. She may not know the words—or as I understand that, the ways, the means and strategies for moving on through and defeating despair. But even without that knowledge, her tune remains strong and resonant in every human soul. And from hope, action is born—the belief in our capacity to make change. Without hope, progress is impossible.
“The poem can also speak as articulately to a very personal reading, relating only to the private subjective experience. It’s a poem for your pocket, very concise, portable (in the head!), that can be laid as a template on to every form of human struggle. Emily Dickinson stitches a vast canvas with the finest of tiny needles.”
Photo by: Matthew Thompson