Ann Henning Jocelyn’s play about Ted Hughes and Assia Weevil retreating to Ireland in the immediate aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s suicide wants to be a painfully intimate exploration of a poisoned relationship. But watching the two survivors trying to recalibrate their lives only reminds you that they are the least interesting figures in this infamous love triangle. Dour Ted is about as charming as an ingrowing toenail while bland Assia twirls and paints and smokes to almost no effect.
The actors aren’t to blame for the anaemic atmosphere – Daniel Simpson and Flora Montgomery do their best; clearly they both have talent. They’d fit into Downton Abbey (Simpson downstairs, Montgomery upstairs). The trouble lies in the words they’ve been given: heavy on exposition, light on poetry. When Ted describes an otter “munching his lunch” it feels like a parody of his animal odes. And Assia’s best line is “fuck the cystitis”, which just about says it all. Elsewhere the words are soapy and inauthentic: Ted says he’s writing poems to get “closure”, which just feels plain wrong. This is dialogue written by a diligent biographer rather than someone with an ear tuned in to how people actually speak.
Rather than these glum and unconvincing scenes you long for a bit of Ted and Sylvia locking antlers in the living room, gnawing bloody chunks off each other. As a character Assia is simply no match for the super-charged lightning rod that Plath could be. This is apparently the point of the play, but it’s a misguided conceit. The ghost at the feast is just too famous and continually reminding the audience of her absence – Ted calls her name while twanging a Tibetan prayer bowl – means the story can’t grow out of her shadow.
The fact that the play runs at less than an hour is testimony to the fact that there simply isn’t much to say about a relationship that is essentially a footnote in literary history. And even shipping the actual furniture over from Doonreagan House can’t lend this play the heft it is looking for. It looks handsome enough and the lulling sound of geese on the soundtrack adds to the lulling effect of the projections of Connemara, but there simply isn’t enough intellectual meat here to chew on.
Doonreagan is on at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 21 September, tickets £20 / £18. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.