When Sylvia Plath was a teenager in Boston in the 1940s, she wrote herself a list of personal commandments. They included working hard at school and “learn German” – something Plath kept intending, and failing, to do for most of her life. No 11 on the list was: “Keep troubles to self.”
This returning hybrid show, part of the Dead Poets Live series and which stars Denise Gough as Plath, can’t help but acknowledge the way in which Plath’s inability to fulfil number 11 has indelibly coloured and skewed our understanding of this extravagant talent artist and pioneer of the confessional poetry movement.
Her wild, lissom verse refracted those troubles (which would culminate in her suicide in 1963 at the age of 30) through imagery of startling, blinding clarity, yet this intriguing evening – part partial portrait of the artist, part lit crit lecture – is primarily at pains to foreground Plath the woman; her hungry youthful exuberance, her savoury sense of humour, her extraordinary dedication to her craft, her mighty intractable ambition.
Ted Hughes, to whom she was married with ferocious turbulence in the years before her death, is but a shadow in the background.
So we see Plath the teenager, describing her personality as a mixture of “ice cream and pickles”, and who at the age of 14 had already cultivated a dark humour about her talent – “hell, who cares if they are published”. She archly dismisses her seminal autobiographical 1963 novel The Bell Jar as “a potboiler” and works obsessively at perfecting her writing, at one point producing 300 words on “what picking your nose is like”.
Gough, bare foot, in a vaguely 1950s-looking skirt and top, prowls the stage, reciting Plath’s poems at biographically judicious moments, allowing each one to afterwards flutter to the floor like snow, and conversing every so often with the show’s affable co-writer and director James Lever, who offers an intermittent critical commentary on Plath’s poetry.
It’s a risky format, not quite theatre, not quite anything else, but there are rare pleasures to be found in listening to Lever talk us through the opening lines in which “nothing quite rhymes” of Mushrooms (1959) – “Overnight, very/Whitely, discreetely/Very quietly” – before taking us on to the “primary colours” of her later work – the burning depths of the 1962 poems and the awful unyielding despair of those she wrote in the weeks before her death.
Gough, a mesmeric stage presence, maintains Plath’s uncompromising voice – her dismissal of fellow poet Anne Sexton as a “mental-hospital graduate”; her simultaneous acknowledgment of the depthless tranquil peace she herself finds in a hospital bed and which bleakly informs the 1961 poem Tulips. Yet at the same time she slowly allows life to drain out of Plath, her body becoming with each passing year more deflated, more exhausted.
It’s easy to feel Plath fatigue, given the reams of print that have been dedicated to her in the decades since her death, but this show finds a way through the baggage.
The Coronet Theatre, until Nov 18; tickets deadpoetlive