“Tychy@ the Fringe” is not turning out to be the fast-moving Edinburgh Festival theatre diary which I had envisaged. A group of Trojan viruses have been performing bukkake over my C-drive, but I now seem to have finally reasserted my dominance over the computer, after days of deleting and installing various programmes. Moreover, my employer, Pollock Halls, makes all its money in the Edinburgh Festival, and so I have spent every available hour working, rather than leading public opinion on questions of contemporary theatre. The life of the theatre critic is hard!
Sylvia Plath’s “Three Women” is often erroneously described as “a play”, but it is actually three diced-up verse soliloquies, staged against the backdrop of a “maternity ward and round about.” The “three women” of the title, a wife, a secretary, and a student, respectively experience and describe childbirth, a miscarriage, and the tendering of a newborn child for adoption. Plath wrote “Three Women” for BBC radio in early 1962, months before completing some of her finest poems and a year before she died at her own hand. This production’s director, Robert Shaw, had to endure two years of copyright negotiations before the play could be staged.
One would like to focus on the aesthetic merits of “Three Women, The First Revival” but Shaw’s outfit seems more of a financial than an artistic achievement. Plath’s annihilation certainly keeps the tills jingling. “The peanut-crunching crowd/ Shoves in to see/ Them unwrap me hand and foot -” Plath recounted in “Lady Lazarus,” and her little scrap of a radio script has now been resurrected Lazarus-like to fill an Assembly Room at twelve pounds a ticket. “Three Women” is plainly unsuited for theatre, lacking both dialogue and stage action, and as the show progresses the three readers – Louisa Clein, Neve McIntosh, and Lara Lemon – listen to each other reading, and occasionally rearrange themselves around three chairs, to a prickly piano accompaniment. The real star of the show is Plath’s writing, and everything else about this production is comparatively modest and bare, like a Puritan church. There are fifty minutes of Plath’s voice, and then the show ends.
This set-up does not serve “Three Women” very well. Plath read several of the Ariel poems for the BBC in 1962, and these fascinating recordings have recently been posted on Youtube. Plath reads the poems deliciously, with the authority and clarity of the first BBC newsreaders, but with a droopy, droll cadence that seems to tilt each word into the moonlight. Shaw’s three performers read Plath’s words with the plaintive sincerity of beggars demanding change. At times, they sound shrill and unbalanced – wobbly with hysteria, or with an idea of female hysteria – and most of the colour and humour of the original script boils away. One wonders, incidentally, whether the original recording of “Three Women” survives. I do not know if Plath personally supervised its reading and recording, but it would be interesting to learn how it was presented, packaged, and interpreted.
Plath was not a victim – she exulted over the world. Her experience of femininity was certainly an unhappy one – a succession of betrayals and failures – but her poetry did not amount to mere reams of confessional outpourings and her achievement was to transcend her female materials through creativity and humour, and to leave to the world some truly unique literary artefacts. Shaw’s “Three Women” does not quite do this justice, and, in its light, Plath’s verse is all flesh and clay rather than light, exquisite artistry. There is one moment in “Three Women” when “the student” thus describes giving up her baby for adoption: “She is a small island, asleep and peaceful/ And I am a white ship hooting: Goodbye, goodbye.” It was a failure of this production that nobody laughed.