Three Women, Jermyn Street Theatre, London
Wednesday 14 January 2009
When babies were still seen as little pink bundles of love, Sylvia Plath had another view. To her, the newborn was a thief, of time, identity, and life itself. One of the three women in her radio play of 1962 (Plath killed herself the following year) enjoys motherhood, but not all the time. The secretary has a miscarriage, and the unmarried student, wishing she had had an abortion ("I should have murdered this that murders me"), gives her baby away.
Everywhere Plath's women turn, they meet whiteness. While the mother, "a river of milk," rejoices at the first narcissi, most of the white things convey blankness and pain – hospital sheets, bandages, a chamber that is "a place of shrieks". One woman is a shell on a white beach toward whom a wave is sending a "cargo of agony". They are surrounded by mirrors in which they are deformed or invisible.
Plath's poetry retains much of its power, but the boldness of its assertions is compromised by masochism and adolescent self-scrutiny; the spirit of Narcissus hovers over more than flowers. This quality is unfortunately emphasised, in Robert Shaw's only fitfully compelling production, by Elisabeth Dahl's performance as the mother – her wide eyes, cheeping-chick voice, and twinkly-princess air convey none of the relaxed sensuality of maternity. Lara Lemon's student is bland where she should be brisk. Only Tilly Fortune is believable as the reality-rumpled secretary who, when the student muses, "I am solitary as grass," ends the play by reminding us "Little grasses cracks through stone".
Shaw's use of thumpingly obvious music – eerie, plaintive, at times actually thumping – also compromises the play's intensity. But Lucy Read's set is just right.
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