Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Opened 7 January, 2009

Literary-theatrical curiosities fall into two subgroups: the “forgotten” and “rediscovered” work, which not always but usually turns out to have been neglected with good reason, and the piece written for another medium, which likewise often transpires to offer not such a great deal when staged. Sylvia Plath’s Three Women falls into the latter category. Plath’s only play, or as she described it a poem for three voices, was written for BBC Radio and broadcast in August 1962, and published (with arguable justification) in the posthumous collection Winter Trees; this production is the result of two years of negotiation with publishers Faber & Faber and constitutes the play’s first stage outing since 1982. Since then we have grown more accustomed to seeing stage renderings of plays for voices, notably the later works of Sarah Kane (although they were written specifically for the stage). None the less, sometimes a staging can seem pointlessly abstract in a “may as well not have bothered” way, and so it is here.
Lucy Read’s design of windows, bas-reliefs and all kinds of frames may suggest a plurality of views corresponding to the three differing perspectives on pregnancy and childbirth in Plath’s verse; they may suggest limitation and categorisation; or they may simply be something to stick behind the actresses. Similarly, Robert Shaw’s direction has the three stand, sit, move their chairs, walk to and fro, occasionally exit and enter, but all seemingly for the sake of something to do rather than arising from the content of the piece. The words do all the work.
Plath had a sorcerer’s gift for invocation: she could bring entire scenes into being with an unforced yet somehow fiercely intense arrangement of a few words, as when First Voice rhapsodises about her infant son, “What did my fingers do before they held him?/ What did my heart do, with its love?” or Third Voice gives out an echo of Leda (and thus of Yeats) in passing and then at a tangent even to that observes, “There is a snake in swans.” All three figures – the mother, the secretary who miscarries and the student who gives up her baby for adoption – are palpably stirred by the breath of Plath’s own experiences as student, thwarted mother-to-be, ecstatic mother. There is little requirement to “act” beyond giving the words their due weight. Which is fortunate, because on the occasions when they try to raise the emotional pitch, Elisabeth Dahl as First Voice (mother) and Lara Lemon as Third Voice (student) are palpably doing acting. It may be patronising to note that Tilly Fortune is several years older than the other two actresses and so has both more life experience and more stage experience to draw on, allowing her to find natural cadences and a perceptible individual character to Second Voice’s lacerating account of her miscarriage.
Despite consisting of little more than 400 lines of verse and 40 minutes’ staged duration, Three Women consistently resonates soul-deep, regardless of one’s experiences or even one’s sex. But the power is all Plath’s, and nothing to do with the staging.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2009

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage