Do I dare? was an event that immediately shouted out to me when I first read the On the Rocks program for 2015. Having studied Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ at A-Level and having been a great fan of Ted Hughes since I was about 12, I couldn’t wait to experience an amalgamation of the two in a poetic telling of their life together.
Going into the event I wasn’t sure what to expect, Sandy’s Bar isn’t the sort of venue that immediately comes to mind for an evening of sophisticated poetry, Yet, on entering, it immediately seemed as if I had stepped back in time as I was surrounded by individual tables and sofas that lay unobtrusively in front of a stage that was already occupied. As I was driving, the free wine was not something I could take advantage of, however my friends made the most of it and the aroma of burning candles and a strong red made the atmosphere all the more palpable.
On the stage were the actors playing Plath and Hughes seated at a yellow clothed kitchen table and reading their own individual pieces of literature. A vase of white roses stood on the table and on each of the audience’s tables lay a lone yellow counterpart alongside pieces of art that offered quotations from the poetry that was to be performed. From the very beginning the scene was set and we awaited with the greatest anticipation for the acting to begin.
The staging was one of the main triumphs of the piece and was used expertly to depict the increasing strain and tension that developed between the lovers. There was a stark symmetry clear in the setting from the very beginning and the dancers maintained this fluidity of form throughout the entire show. Light and shadow characterised Hughes’ performances with half his face cast in darkness as the other side spoke out into the subtle lighting. This helped to create a sense of the conflicted and controlling poet whereas Plath remained almost entirely in light, only merging into the dark as her internal torment took hold.
Without the dancers I do not think it would have been as powerful and dramatic as it was. The way in which they remained expressionless yet oozed character and emotion was something truly profound to observe and the shapes they created made the entire stage seem as if it were involved in a dance. One example of their skill was in the mimicking of what looked like a mirror as Hughes reflected on his own personal weakness.
Plath herself was an image of the tormented soul and the passion with which Gabriella Masding portrayed her was deeply moving. She seemed to be engaged in a much more youthful adoration and fascination with the world around her whereas Peter Swallow, who played Hughes, acted out the role of a much darker and ominous male protagonist. The actors’ use of the stage was excellently rehearsed and with the structured and meticulously timed actions of the dancers the audience was transfixed in their seats.
As the play continued, it was clear that Plath’s mental state began to decline. Through the movement of the dancers, her pure agony was expressed and as one of the three began speaking of the turmoil inside Plath’s head, Hughes came and spoke oppressively over her, creating a desperate and devastating conflict.
This was a performance which I was overwhelmed by from the very beginning and I could not drag my eyes away throughout its entirety. The poetry itself was beautiful and stirring, the actors seemed possessed by the roles they adopted and the dancers, Grace Reid, Alexandra Myers and Alexandrea Solheim, were essential in creating this artistic masterpiece. The best way I can think to describe it is in one of the lines of poetry that the actors spoke themselves ‘two people with one pulse’, this was a nuanced depiction that was made all the more potent by the interaction that occurred on stage.