An Intimate Virtual Performance: Damian Lewis in “Lift Me Up I am Dying”

“Severn-I–lift me up–I am dying–I shall die easy–don’t be frightened–be firm, and thank God it has come!”

John Keats

If there had been no Covid pandemic, they would have marked the 200th anniversary of John Keats’ death with a new production of the play Lift Me Up I am Dying in the house that Keats died – now the Keats-Shelley House  in Rome. But when it was clear that a live performance would not be possible, the creator Pele Cox came up with an alternative: she would have Zoom meetings with the actors who happened to be in lockdown and then let them  film themselves and bring to life a half-hour film based on the last weeks of Keats’ life. And they did.

Today marks the 201st anniversary of John Keats’ death and we re-visit the intimate virtual performance Damian gives in Lift Me Up I am Dying.

Christian Roe and Nicholas Rowe, who worked with Cox regularly in the past, were cast as Keats and Joseph Severn, the artist who took care of Keats in his last weeks. And Cox thought of an actor, whom she worked with at the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, to play Percy Shelley: Damian Lewis.

Damian Lewis as the Monster and Helen McCrory as Mary Shelley at the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein at John Murray House, London

Damian shares in an interview with The Financial Times:

“If Nick (Rowe, who plays Severn) hadn’t called me up and said, did you know that it’s the 200th anniversary of Keats’s death, February 23 might have passed me by without me giving it much thought. So it’s nice to mark it. For literary and academic reasons, I get a kick out of anniversaries.”

And there is some physical resemblance there, isn’t there – especially to young Damian given that Shelley died a month short of his 30th birthday!

It turns out Damian was not a Shelley enthusiast before joining the project.

“I didn’t know a lot about him except that he went to the same school I went to.” (Eton.) He was always more difficult to read than the other Romantics because his poetry was so laden with classical imagery. Apart from ‘Ozymandias’, which I love, I’ve always struggled with Shelley.”

He liked Byron more (as proven by the Byron volumes he has on his bookshelves at home!

“His rock and roll-ness and relationships made him interesting and fun. But beyond that, the Romantics . . . It’s easy to attach to them as an adolescent because they are exactly the way that an adolescent thinks. Live fast, die young, walk around mooning . .. Not showing your bottom to people! Although there was a bit of that . . . Did I go deep into the Romantics? No, I don’t think I did. Pele invited me to get involved via Nick and I just thought, what a lovely thing to do… In this rather bleak time, it’s nice to revisit this group of men.”

Here is some information in case you are, like me and Damian, not familiar with Percy Shelley and his relationship with John Keats. Otherwise, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs!

Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets. He had a strong belief in realization of human happiness, and accordingly, his poetry reflected beauty, imagination, love, creativity, political liberty and nature.  While Shelley’s work did not receive much recognition during his lifetime, he was influential on the next generations of poets. Shelley’s best known work is probably  “Ozymandias” (1818), one of the most loved poems in English, came out of a game where Shelley, Keats and Leigh Hunt proposed a sonnet on the Nile! His other important works include “Ode to the West Wind” (1819), “To a Skylark” (1820), and the political ballad “The Mask of Anarchy” (1819) as well as long poems such as Adonais (1821), Prometheus Unbound (1820) and his unfinished, final work The Triumph of Life (1822). His second wife was Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. And, like many romantic poets Shelley died young – at 29 in a boating accident.

Having read a bit about the Shelley – Keats relationship to give you some background story for the movie: Percy Shelley and John Keats were not best friends. They were rivals. They did not take kindly to each other (a fellow poet Leigh Hunt said: “Keats did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him.”) and were quite critical of each other’s work, too. Still, when they both lived in Italy, and Keats showed serious symptoms of tuberculosis, the Shelleys invited him to stay with them in Livorno.

When Shelley found out about Keats’s death in a letter from fellow poet Leigh Hunt, he started working on an elegy right away. His long poem “Adonais”  is widely regarded as the most famous response to Keats’s tragedy as well as one of  Shelley’s best works. In the poem, Shelley urges the mourners not to weep any longer for Keats. The poet has now become a part of the eternal and so he is free from the attacks of reviewers. Keats is not dead. It is the living who are dead. Keats is at a place where “envy and calumny and hate and pain” cannot reach him.

Shelley died a year later in a boat accident.  When his body washed ashore ten days later, they identified Shelley from his clothes and a copy of Keats’s Lamia in his jacket pocket. After Shelley’s death, his wife Mary Shelley said the elegy he wrote for Keats was now more applicable to Shelley himself and that “Adonais” was the poet’s prophecy on his own tragic death. Shelley’s ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where Keats lay.

       Here pause: these graves are all too young as yet
       To have outgrown the sorrow which consign’d
       Its charge to each; and if the seal is set,
       Here, on one fountain of a mourning mind,
       Break it not thou! too surely shalt thou find
       Thine own well full, if thou returnest home,
       Of tears and gall. From the world’s bitter wind
       Seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb.
       What Adonais is, why fear we to become?

This guy was born to recite poetry. Period.

While most of the film was filmed interiors – Damian, I cannot believe you did not bother to remove that printer 🙂 – the actors also used some outside locations for dramatic effects. Damian’s choice to read Keats’s “Ode to the Nightingale” was a tree in his yard as the construction workers kept working next door. The experience was, in his own words, “very low-tech.”

“Trying not to fall out of the tree or drop my laptop, talking about the melodious this, that and the other . . . very low-tech!”

But being too happy in thine happiness,—
                That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
                        In some melodious plot
         Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
                Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

The way he puts his part together reminds Damian of his life as a student:

“Just being creative with not very much and I’ve missed that. Just to devise things again, and of course this will be better than when we were students because we’ve got Pele, Tom and Fabio to put it together, and we’ve got an already existing text that’s good and vibrant and has a story to tell.”

A scarf. A green shutter. A tree. And words. Almost all words the actors speak in Lift Me Up I am Dying come from the original poems, diaries and letters. The only exception is the poem “Keats in Italy” written by Susie Feay for the film. And I do not know if it is poetry, the locations the actors have chosen to film, or the lockdown itself, but the performance feels very intimate. It is a true labor of love. And the fan girl in me has three words to say: undone French cuffs! 😀

Here is the director Pele Cox talking about her actors:

“The extraordinary thing about the project is that these actors were available at all. It is the only benefit of Covid. They are sending me what they have filmed on their iPhone at midnight and 7 pm. They are dedicated. About their time in Italy, Shelley writes, ‘This paradise of exiles,’ but in our case it’s more like Keats’s Hyperion: ‘Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave a paradise for a sect.’ There is something urgent about getting this done and not letting the restrictions restrict. You can see how much the poetry loves these talents, loves their stillness, their imprisonment, the meter of them. Poetry has been waiting for a window. Here it is. And they have been bold to agree to read their parts from where their lockdown hails from: Antwerp, Putney, Tufnell Park, Peckham Rye.”

You can watch Lift Me Up I am Dying in its entirety below, thanks to the creators making it universally available on You Tube. And if you are wondering who filmed Damian in the film Well, it was no one but the incredible Helen McCrory who  stepped up as the camera woman. I imagine she was very sick at the time. I do not want to go sentimental here (I know I easily can under the circumstances) because I know Helen would hate that. So I would like to take this opportunity and salute this incredibly brave woman who gave her 150% to art and charity even in her last months.

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

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