Plath poetry tells the story

Actress Beth Lochhead (Sylvia 1), director Perry Spicer and actresses Lauren Meckel (Sylvia 2) and Alison Cowan (Sylvia 3) rehearse for the play. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Actress Beth Lochhead (Sylvia 1), director Perry Spicer and actresses Lauren Meckel (Sylvia 2) and Alison Cowan (Sylvia 3) rehearse for the play. Photo: Gregor Richardson

Dunedin hosted the filming of a movie about American poet Sylvia Plath 13 years ago. Now, the city will hold the Australasian premiere of a play based on her poetry. Rebecca Fox talks to those behind the scenes about the tragic story.

Sylvia Plath had everything — beauty, talent, a famous marriage — yet she committed suicide at age 30.

While the movie Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and filmed in Dunedin, focused on the end of her life, the play Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait at The Globe concentrates on her poetry.

She was famous for her ‘‘confessional’’ poetry, which explored her mental anguish and troubled marriage. It helps tell her story in the play by Barry Kyle, which was written for the National Theatre in the United Kingdom.

Plath was described by critics as ‘‘one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English’’.

It is a story with plenty of grit for first-time Globe director Perry Spicer.

‘‘I was initially attracted to the language, the use of imagery. She is not well known in New Zealand, so that was part of the attraction — to expose people to her poetry.’’

Spicer has a long history in theatre dating back to small amateur theatre companies in Wellington such as New Theatre and its associated theatre school, which went on to become the New Zealand Drama School and then Toi Whakaari.

‘‘I’ve acted and directed on and off all my life.’’

There is not much he has not done — teaching, musicals, film, television and radio.

He moved here from Cheviot with his partner and getting involved in the Globe was inevitable.

‘‘I thought, ‘Let’s do something that challenges the actors and the audience’. I want to be able to give back while I have the chance.’’

Globe spokesman Keith Scott said it was quite an exciting end to the winter series to have an Australasian premiere of a work.

‘‘It’s exciting for us to be able to continue through the winter series to present plays that you would not normally see in mainstream theatre.’’

Plath was a controversial figure. She was born in 1932 in Boston, the daughter of a German immigrant college professor, Otto Plath, and one of his students, Aurelia Schober.

Her life changed abruptly when her father died in 1940 and some of her most vivid poems, including the well-known Daddy, concern her troubled relationship with her authoritarian father and her feelings of betrayal when he died.

Spicer said it was a complicated piece, with three actresses — Beth Lockhead (Sylvia 1), Lauren Meckel (Sylvia 2) and Alison Cowan (Sylvia 3) — taking on different periods of the poet’s life.

‘‘You see three different facets of the same woman. She was a troubled soul.’’

The actresses had done a great deal of research to be able to bring that element of realism to the work.

‘‘They’re the best-informed cast I’ve worked with.’’

While it was a biographical play on one level, it told her story through her poetry as well as narrative.

It covered her younger years as a gifted student, when she began to win awards for her poetry; her early 20s, when she began to suffer the symptoms of severe depression; her marriage to poet laureate Ted Hughes in 1956; having children; the marriage breakup; and her early death.

‘‘She was obsessed with death and dying.’’

Spicer said he did not believe in doing accents unless they were perfect, so while Meckel was from Texas, they were not endeavouring to mimic Plath’s voice.

‘‘She had an unusual voice, very precise, no American drawl. It was almost English, in a way. It would be very hard to replicate.’’

Scott said one of the poems in the play, Tulips, is one of her most famous and was based on her time in hospital, when everything around her was white except the bright red tulips.

‘‘The play does require a lot of concentration and may draw people back to the poems.’’

As the play was first performed at the National Theatre, Spicer and the cast were talking to people there to ensure the play’s integrity was retained.

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