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The Belle of Off-Broadway

Joely Richardson tells Nancy Bilyeau why playing Emily Dickinson is the role of a lifetime

Among the musicals and large-cast dramas, the superheroes and the tragediennes, a play is running at New York City’s Westside Theatre that is devoted to one woman, and she is someone who lived and died in the 19th century, famous in the Massachusetts town she lived in her whole life for being the odd and reclusive “woman in white.” 

In The Belle of Amherst, English actress Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, best known for the television series Nip/Tuck and The Tudors, brings Emily Dickinson to life in a one-woman show written by William Luce, based on Dickinson’s poems, letters and diaries. The production has won glowing reviews, including from the Hollywood Reporter: “Richardson beautifully captures the complex emotions of the character, effortlessly conveying the impish humor and no-nonsense qualities that were evident in Dickinson’s private writings.”

In an interview with DuJour, Richardson speaks frankly of her challenges in playing one of America’s premier poets.

How did you become interested in this play?

Someone just sent it. I don’t know why they picked me. I’m very, very glad. The script just arrived in the spring: “Would you like to do this?”

Did you hesitate to take on a one-woman show?

No. It seems so crazy now, but I didn’t! At moments in rehearsal, if I’m honest with you now, when I was starting to work on it and when I was committed and there was no turning back, I was like, “Oh my God.” It was so much harder than I had anticipated. But the writing was so beautiful, I felt I didn’t have a choice.

Did you do your own research into the life of Emily Dickinson, apart from the play?

Yes, I found her letters the most helpful. I could hear her conversational style.

Joely Richardson, Photograph by Carol Rosegg

Joely Richardson, Photograph by Carol Rosegg

What was the interpretation of Emily that you wanted to come across in this production? 

She was small in size—which I’m not—but the thing about her was that she was a very dynamic personality. She was not soft and fragile. Her personality was very, very powerful and her writing was powerful. She was not a quiet lady poet. And there was a tomboy side to her character. She was a worker. She loved being in the garden. I have a garden too and I understand. She wanted to do work.

There are moments in the play that are quite funny.

She was naughty! She had a mischievous take on life and her interactions. Her humor, that in a way was my favorite thing, that warmed me to her.

Is it enjoyable, to play this character?

That is the question that friends or people have asked me, “Do you enjoy it?” I have to take a beat, because that’s not quite the right word. A friend of mine summed it up best by saying “It’s a very profound experience.” To play it, to channel it, to try and tell it every night, and my having to experience it in order to tell it, is different. It’s a very unique piece.

It sounds so challenging.

In rehearsals it was just plain hard work. You rarely feel good. Weirdly, when I started playing it, once I’d laid down all the work, it’s one of those things that is not logical but … I don’t feel alone onstage. Whether it’s off the audience or whether it’s my imagining these other people she talks to and feeling that they are onstage, I don’t know. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done, but I know that even if the play were to end tomorrow, I think it will be the work I’m most proud of.


Main Photograph by Carol Rosegg