Poetry in Motion

2 March 2008

Ted and Sylvia in Cambridge, Newnham Old Labs, 22-23rd Feb, 19:30

Four Stars

Reviewer Jessi Savage-Hanford

Rarely is it in Cambridge that theatre audiences are treated to the type of cross between poetry reading and dramatic sequence which the Newnham Players were offering this past weekend, in commemoration of what would have been, had she lived: Sylvia Plath’s 75th year. Further seldom is it that such a unique performance written by former Oxford professor Bernard Richards, depicting two of the twentieth century’s most important poets, can be skilfully carried off by a cast who collectively possess such little previous acting experience. That is if one is to believe the (frankly unconvincing) programme notes where, it seems, all acting credits stopped with primary school as, ultimately: Jen Wainwright and Sophie Rashbrook as the two Sylvia’s and Dom Rustecki and Atli Stannard as the two Ted Hughes’s did a fantastic job.

I may be somewhat biased having fallen in love with Plath’s poetry at a young age, and, more recently with Hughes’ (and therefore the prospect of enjoying an evening hearing nothing but fragments of their letters, journal extracts, and, of course, poems was one which I couldn’t resist) but the strong presence of the actors and the simple but fluid way they utilized a basic set, depicting, in both a poignant and unexpectedly comic manner, a brief chronology of the two lovers’ lives, is highly commendable.

What was particularly interesting about this performance is how it initially seemed to treat the two poets as case studies, but then allowed them to take over, using their words to place themselves and their written works in context. The text was also rendered in such a way as to make conversations between the two (through the interplay of their letters or poems) naturalistic and convincing, and, indeed, by extension, largely comic, such as with the incident of the two arguing over the Ouija board, or Plath performing Chaucer to a field of cows. Of central importance, however, which Richards was keen to stress in conversation after the performance, was the relationship between the two and how their individual influences fed into each others work, in the “unfolding narrative context” portrayed, as well as the importance of actually hearing the poetry spoken out loud (something which Hughes himself both encouraged and encompassed during his lifetime).

It would seem appropriate to end with a quotation from either of the two, but, like Richards’ performance, what the audience was shown was that both Hughes’ and Plaths’ works are simply too rich to single down to one concrete particular. Perhaps it is this point that was the strongest of the play: its greatest effect was to make you want to go home and read some more poetry (rather an exceptional result of drama) as you were, indeed, left wanting more.