Cheltenham Literature Festival Revisited
by Andrew Holgate | The Sunday Times | October 9, 2021
There have been some great Cheltenham Literature Festival moments over the years – Hilary Clinton in 2017, looking back on her presidential defeat the year before; a 92-year-old David Attenborough charming the audience in 2018. But surely one of the most electric hours in the festival’s history came in 2014, with the appearance on stage of the married couple Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory.
Here consists of a recording that was thought to have been lost, an electric performance at the 2014 Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival – one of the most memorable in the festival’s history – by Damian and Helen of love poems from the poetry collection The Love Book edited by Allie Esiri.
Earlier this summer, Damian rediscovered a recording of the event, which he offers here now to listeners as a tribute to his wife. To hear the recording in full, click here.
There have been some great @cheltfestivals moments over the years, but one of the most electric hours in the festival’s history was the appearance of @lewis_damian and Helen McRory, writes @aholgate. pic.twitter.com/rJEI8TyFB4
— Sunday Times Culture (@ST_Culture) October 10, 2021
The two of them, both then at the height of their powers — McCrory having just stormed the National Theatre with her portrayal of Medea, Lewis fresh from the TV series Homeland — rarely appeared together. But both were passionate poetry lovers, and they had agreed to help a friend, the poetry impresario Allie Esiri, by reading a selection of love poems from Esiri’s collection of classic verse, The Love Book. Funny, tender, poignant and often heartbreaking, the 50 minutes that followed left the people who attended the reading spellbound.
“When the festival had asked if they could film it,” Lewis explains, “Helen and I had said no because we believe that live events have a unique energy and the cameras would have brought a self-consciousness. After Helen died, Allie and I were reminiscing about the event and kicking ourselves that there was no recording. In fact there was. Not film, but we discovered a very good quality audio recording and got to thinking about how we could share it with a wider audience.”
Now, thanks to Lewis, that recording has been made available on the Stories of Our Times podcast as a tribute by him to his wife, after her death in April at the age of 52.
The novelist Clare Clark, who introduced the two, remembers the chemistry between Lewis and McCrory that afternoon. “I listened to Helen on Desert Island Discs and recall her saying that the director of the play where they had first met talked about the chemistry between them, that it was like directing a fire. And you really felt that in the room that day. There must have been 1,200 people in the Forum, but it was like being in a private moment between the two of them.”
Listening back to the audio now, you are struck by how much fun they had together. As the session moves via Shakespeare, Shelley and Carol Ann Duffy from poems about courtship and first nights to comfortable married life, betrayal and decline, the two joke and play and, yes, flirt. They compete for applause, they joust and they laugh.
Then there are the more poignant moments, given unavoidable resonance by the tragedy that has since befallen the couple. When Lewis recites ee cummings’s lines, about “hearts enfolding one another, supporting and carrying”, for instance. Most of all when McCrory reads with extraordinary power the final lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43: “I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death.”
As Clark says: “It was goosebumpy, truly goosebumpy…