Thursday, 8 January 2009

Three Women - Jermyn Street Theatre

Three Women By Sylvia Plath
Director: Robert Shaw
Reviewer: Honor Bayes

The Jermyn Street Theatre’s walls are a pale blue and in cream frames are babies clothes pasted to the background like Grecian reliefs. Into this supposedly hospital (but actually Jane Austen sitting room) like space, Voice 1, Voice 2 and Voice 3 enter. Flesh and blood women; they somehow float over the powerful words they speak, beautifully intoning but never getting their vocal cords dirty. In fact apart from one slash of red light, there is no visceral link to the passion and pain or the blood and tears that has marked Sylvia Plath’s legacy in Robert Shaw’s beautifully tame production.

3 Women is a little known radio play by Plath which was published in the same year as her most famous poem Ariel and and ahailed a worthy forerunner of this piece in terms of quality. In it Plath manages to elegantly, violently and with cut glass beauty detail fragile and precarious emotions as three women go through the life changing experiences of having birth, having a miscarriage and choosing to have a child adopted. The text is as raw and vulnerable as a new born baby, and as painfully beautiful and awe-inspiring as the process of child birth itself. It is wonderful that this neglected work is finally on display.

The cast is a capable one. Elisabeth Dahl as the mother (voice 1) plays her part with a deep serenity if a little too much passivity, as the secretary (voice 2) Tilly Fortune bristles with unjust anger at her lot and convincingly portrays her feeling of betrayal at the ‘flat’ men who run her world and at a fickle mother nature. Lastly the young Lara Lemon (Voice 3) as the student who gives up her child invokes Plath’s younger self in body passionately, even though the tears glistening in her eyes never quite ring true.

Robert Shaw’s direction is by the book but offers no dialogue with Plath’s impressive text. He is deeply wedded to her script and knows each contour and curve and yet he seems unable to challenge or question it and therefore it is a pastel version of a vibrant piece. Conflict, so implicit within the text is nowhere to be seen, only compliance and passive representation. In short Shaw’s direction strokes, when what it needs to do is grab this piece by the balls.

This is a well acted and strongly directed version of a ground shaking and soul breaking text and it is definitely easy on the eye, focusing as it seems to on the delicate femininity of Plath’s text. But where is the paper cut edge in ‘And from the open mouth issue sharp cries/Scratching at my sleep like arrows/Scratching at my sleep’? Where is the weird fascination when: on looking at new born babies, the mother says, ‘I think they are made of water; they have no expression/Their features are sleeping, like light on quiet water’? Said with gentle sympathy and competent lyricism, these lines, as with most in this production, are never fully embodied to their complete meaning.

A beautiful and calm production, but one as flat as the men described along the way, Shaw’s version floats along and is ultimately unable to fully penetrate Plath’s intricate poetry. The last stanza ends with fierce optimism as the secretary who has been beleagued with miscarriage after seeming miscarriage (or is it her choice; abortion – an optional reading in the text – is completely ignored here) speaks of ‘The little grasses/Crack through stone, and they are green with life’. Instead of heralding hope, in this production this line peters through and suddenly we are at an end, clapping the actresses - blink and you’ll miss it. For all this however, this is a show worth going to experience, even if the visual is somewhat swoopy, Plath’s forgotten masterpiece will completely carry you away.

Photo: Marilyn Kingwill
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