Behind every great man

<i>Alcestis</i>| Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax
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The Independent Culture

With the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998, most people thought that Ted Hughes, then poet laureate, had delivered the final word on his troubled relationship with Sylvia Plath, the wife who committed suicide, while estranged from him, in 1963. But this production of his posthumous play, Alcestis, shows that he was still coming to terms with her emotional legacy in the months before his death.

With the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998, most people thought that Ted Hughes, then poet laureate, had delivered the final word on his troubled relationship with Sylvia Plath, the wife who committed suicide, while estranged from him, in 1963. But this production of his posthumous play, Alcestis, shows that he was still coming to terms with her emotional legacy in the months before his death.

The piece is both a muscularly poetic free adaptation of Euripides' Greek drama and, intermittently, a searching piece of displaced autobiography that confronts certain eerie affinities between the painful aftermath of his own marriage and the story of Admetos, King of Thessaly. This latter is a protagonist who dodges death by allowing his wife to die on his behalf. He is reviled for this by some of his people, just as Hughes was demonised by feminists who claimed that he was the cause of Plath's suicide.

The work is now premiered by Northern Broadsides in the resonant catacomb-like Viaduct Theatre at Dean Clough in Halifax. But Barrie Rutter's undercast, broadly acted production does only partial justice to the tricky mix of tones in a piece that includes both high tragedy and crude comic slapstick and which ends happily when the hero's friend Heracles fights the God of Death and brings Alcestis back to her husband. It does not help that the risible costumes and the over-strenuous northern accents give it the atmosphere of a "Carry On Up The Acropolis" fancy-dress party dramatised by John Godber.

The best performance is by Andrew Cryer as Admetos, and the most gripping scene his indecorous slanging match conducted over Alcestis's laid-out, flower-bedecked body with the tottering geriatric father who refused to die for him. Thin, shaven-headed Cryer vividly shows you a weak, guilty man trying to hide his uneasy conscience behind snarling, vindictive aggression. In some of Hughes's most powerful verse, Admetos revealingly overstates the case against his father and mother whom he dismisses as "You and that other half-corpse you keep warm".

The poetry likewise magnificently rises to the occasion of describing the husband's agony stuck with a life that he recognises is worthless to him without his spouse. "Admetos is trying to gnaw himself/ Free of Admetos" declares one of the blunt Northern male chorus, likening him to a rat in a trap. Cryer is very good and ambiguous in his agonised cowering recoil in the final scene where Heracles teases the king that the veiled, silent woman he has brought back is a stranger who needs protection.

But much of the production is weak. Hughes has greatly expanded the episode where Heracles, as yet unaware that the Queen has died, parties drunkenly and tactlessly in the royal palace. Looking like a superannuated heavy metal rocker, David Hounslow is much too lightweight in the role, and the long knockabout revue of the famous Labours is, well, laboriously unfunny. This, then, turns into what is potentially one of the most intriguing parts of the piece - a sequence where some of Hughes's own trademark obsessions and self-projections (with Prometheus chained to the rock, with Heracles the unconscious wife-murderer) are recapitulated in a mood of boisterous, pointed levity. However, Rutter's unsubtle production fails to hint sufficiently at the depth of pain that is being transcended here. One wishes that Hughes's magnanimous final reckoning with life had been unveiled by a supreme director of Greek drama such as Deborah Warner or Katie Mitchell.

To 23 Sept, 01422 255266, then touring to 7 Oct and at Soho Theatre, London from 10 Oct.

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