Thursday, 1 August 2013

Guest blog: Sylvia Plath’s ‘Three Women’ in Performance.

In October 2012 Melanie Thomas undertook the challenge of directing Sylvia Plath’s radio script – 'Three Women' for the Melbourne Fringe Festival in Australia, making it the first time Plath's Estate and publishers granted rights for an Australian performance. In this guest-post, Melanie explains her desire to bring Plath's work to the stage... 

Plagued with insomnia, one particular night I decided to flick though the copy of Plath’s Collected Poems that I keep beside my bed.  Having recently purchased this particular copy to further my Plath collection, I had not yet had the chance to open it.  I decided (heaven knows why…) to first read the Ted Hughes 'Introduction' and came upon the information about 'Winter Trees' and the key line- “her verse play for radio ‘Three Women’ which had been written in early 1962.”  I turned straight to the contents to find it (I didn’t even finish reading the introduction!).

I have always had a great desire to bring Plath’s poetry to the stage.  Her melancholic and rhythmic voice and her ability to manipulate words into experiences that, I believe, all women can relate to in some form or another, drew me into this web of staging possibilities and characterisation that I thought would make for striking theatre.

Carly Grayson, Narda Shanley and Gabrielle Savrone in the Caged Birds Productions staging of 'Three Women'.

After reading the poem it instantly resonated with my personal experiences of pregnancy and vocalised my thoughts that, though so many women share them, are so often concealed and left undiscussed. 'Three Women' delicately interweaves three uncompromisingly honest experiences of childbirth, miscarriage and adoption, expressing thoughts on pregnancy which, fifty years since written, remain universal yet rarely spoken about.

If you haven’t discovered the poem yet, the basic premise of the interweaving voices is: The First Woman is an excited yet distressed first- time mother. The Second Woman experiences yet another late-term loss of child. The Third Woman is a young college student resolved to give her baby up for adoption. Despite being Plath’s only radio script, 'Three Women' remains a little-known work, although it is gaining momentum. Since it was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1973, 'Three Women' has only recently been performed several times in the UK and US each time receiving run-of-the-mill reviews claiming that the poem was un-stageable.  I was not to be bought down by this and attempted to run headlong into releasing the potential of the script.

Gaining the rights to the poem was an arduous task.  After two months of waiting for an initial response and numerous emails back and forth, publishers Faber & Faber finally granted me the rights… with a VERY large price attached to them (much larger than any normal performance rights for a script.)

The process to the stage was a difficult one.  My cast (First Woman - Gabrielle Savrone | Second Woman - Narda Shanley | Third Woman - Carly Grayson) worked tirelessly on their lines, bringing their characters to life. I on the other hand, had great difficulty in bringing these qualities to the stage.  It was exceedingly difficult to create movement that encapsulated Plath’s voice.  It became evident quite quickly that it needed to become a collaborative process more than a self-directed one due to the nature of the text.  As Plath’s voice within the piece is separated between three differing women, we each had our own shared experiences that allowed us to be informed by certain phrasing, words or metaphors that were created; this made it necessary to work more as a team than individually as these shared experiences came to light. Two women involved with the production had lost children in early pregnancy and were able to discuss these experiences to make evident the raw emotion and desires of the women, especially when it can to the Second Woman character.

Utilising my love of images I created a, for the lack of a better phrase – ‘mood board’, that my Producer (Jessica Morris Payne) and I could contribute to. This was a fantastic working document where we could put all ideas together and my cast could check frequently to gain a perspective of where I was headed with the production. These images also helped to not only create the emotional qualities that we wanted to convey, but it also helped to forge the physical images of the set, costume design and lighting – wanting it to be kept fairly thematically accurate to the date written.

My cast, producer and I also discovered that it was a possibility that Plath was influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film Nära livet (‘Brink of Life’) which holds very similar haunting qualities of three women’s differing experiences in a labour ward. At the time of our rehearsals there was a media exposé of numerous older women in Australia whom had teen pregnancies and been forced to give up their child.  These editorials in the newspapers also helped us to discover some truths about the processes that your girls went through when adopting out their children.

I believe that if I had this chance again, with the experience that I now have gained, the process of practical realisation to the stage would have been very different – not so contained within the words of the poem, but much more imagery based; yet I do believe that the outcome would have been quite similar.  I was delighted with the outcome of all our work and reading the reviews (I am not ashamed to say it some were ‘run-of-the-mill’) the performances were the absolute highlight of the production.  This I cannot thank my cast enough for.

It was a truly rewarding experience to transport Plath’s voice to the stage and I hope to see 'Three Women' performed more often to discover the endless possibilities that her verse can bring to light and the different interpretations and qualities that her language brings to each individuals human experiences.

(l-r) Carly Grayson, Melanie Thomas, Gabrielle Savrone and Narda Shanley.

Melanie Thomas is Drama Honours graduate from Deakin University and prospective Masters of Fine Arts student, who has an interest in the inherent transferences of dramaturgical elements between Literature and Theatre.  Influenced by great writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Simone De Beauvoir and Sylvia Plath, she is captivated by melancholic female characters within literature and theatre.  After working in semi-professional theatre for many years (performing in roles such as Hermia in A Midsummers Night’s Dream, Susan in Veronica’s Room and 4.48 Psychosis), Three Women is Melanie's first foray emerging into professional theatre with her company Caged Birds Productions.   


Alexandra McCarthy said...

Brilliant idea! Your blog posts are so enjoyable to read as always!

Nick Smart said...

A great insight into the staging of the play. Thank you.