The performance was introduced by Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. She looked so much like her mother I was caught off guard: wide eyes, that full, generous mouth. Slender and compact in her black dress.
Her voice is also very much like Sylvia’s, English and cool. She spoke confidently about how the Ariel poems had gone through so many edits and iterations, that this “restored” version could not possibly be considered final; it was a work in progress. She also made the point that this was just one snapshot in her mother’s life, that had she lived, she’d have continued to evolve. She strongly defended her father, saying that with “painstaking care”, he had nurtured Sylvia’s artistic legacy, protecting it for her and her brother, Nicholas. She spoke very passionately about her father’s love for Sylvia, and for herself and her brother, and she was able to say that her mother was caught up in a moment of “revenge” when she wrote Ariel.
Forty women poets and actors sat in a huge semi-circle with three podiums in front. Each reader, dressed in a palette of grey, black, and red, would read, then return to their seats, and the next three would arise. This format was excellent. It kept things moving, and it had the feel of a much more intimate gathering than it actually was.
The weakest poem for me was “Cut”, read by Amy McAllister. McAllister read directly off paper in monotone, and without any of the humor that Sylvia wrote the poem. It was quickly forgotten.
Juliet Stevenson’s reading of “Tulips” was very good. I also enjoyed Ariel, read by Amy Morgan. And there was a very special treat: Ruth Fainlight, looking tiny and using a cane to help her walk, read Elm, the poem Sylvia dedicated to her.
There were two highlights for me. The first was Berck-Plage read by the stunning Harriet Walter. She lifted the evening to a whole other level. She was simply magnificent. She is a fine actress – I’d always enjoyed her on screen, particularly in Sense & Sensibility – but in this performance, she showed us precisely what Sylvia was feeling, what she truly meant, as she wrote those words. Every emotion flickered across her pretty, unconventional face. The way she rasped the line, “This is what it means to be complete/ it is horrible”, left me rocked to the core. I was brought to tears.
The second heart-stopping moment happened when the lights dimmed and a photo of Sylvia appeared on the screen above the stage, and her words filled the room. I thought of Frieda in the front row, listening, experiencing this with us. She must have heard this a thousand times, but it is probably still dear to her. As for the audience, we were left stupefied when the lights came back up and the readings resumed.
The Arrival Of The Bee Box, read by Miranda Richardson, actually provoked a small laugh from me. Her line “I have simply ordered a box of maniacs” was funny, perfectly intoned. Stings, read by Siobhan Redmond, was very good.
The last poem, Wintering, read by Deborah Findlay, really brought to light the metamorphosis that Sylvia intended. In fact, the whole collection, read aloud by professional actors and poets, actually made sense to me in a way it never had before, despite my well-documented obsessive research. After Daddy, you get the sense that she’s truly through (“daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”) Now I return to what Frieda emphasized at the introduction. She said the collection was not final, with all questions answered. After the performance, hearing the flow of the poems, I think she’s right. Because in the restored edition, “You’re” and “Fever 103″ happen AFTER Daddy. Somehow I had never seen how utterly final “Daddy” is; directly after that poem, You’re and Fever 103 happen, and then she shifts to the bee poems. I can’t help but think those two poems were meant to be directly before Daddy in the final manuscript. Because once Daddy happens, that IS settled. Once Daddy happens, the world is finally neutral again, calm, peaceful. She can “taste the spring”.
The performers took three well-earned bows at the end of the show. I applauded until my hands went numb.