Review by Thomas Gregory
Most people know a little about the Plath/Hughes saga. Sylvia was the troubled young poet in and out of mental institutions, Hughes the already-famous British powerhouse. Sylvia gassed herself to death, an act often blamed on Hughes’ love affair with Assia Wevill. Hughes would then go on to capitalise on his late wife’s death. Burn those journals that painted him poorly while publishing the rest. Editing her final poetry collection. Do everything to make money without painting himself as a heartless philanderer.
Less is known to your average person about Assia Wevill. Some may know that she also took her life six years later, taking her four-year-old daughter with her. Even fewer know that she escaped Nazi Germany as a young woman, was a talented poet and translator in her own right, and was pregnant at the time of Plath’s death.
Birthday Book of Storms, presented by Book of Dreams Theatre Company, is essentially an exploration of this forgotten character in the literary love triangle and the “forgotten child” that was born of it. The play explores fidelity, curated truth, and the strained relationship between past and present loves.
The title comes from Hughe’s collection of poetry, Birthday Letters, written just before his death in 1998. An autobiographical collection, generally regarded as a clear attempt to rationalise and redeem himself from his actions nearly forty years prior. The play draws on the poetry of Hughes and Plath for many of its lines.
There’s a strange conceit to the play; a young woman wants to research the family through the use of the “library” carefully curated by Hughes throughout his years. There’s the suggestion that she may be the love child of Hughes and Wevill, and later the same actor plays Shura, the child they had two years after Plath’s death. If the girl first presented was Shura, it would make her an unknowing ghost herself. Helped by a “day librarian” and “night librarian” that tell two versions of the same tale, she pieces together a story of two very different women and one very selfish man.
Birthday Book of Storms is at its best when the focus is on Assia herself. A woman portrayed by the “day librarian” as a flippant fling only existing to hurt Plath, the “night librarian” offers a story of a woman always living under the shadow of a larger-than-life ghost. A woman who wants to protect her child more in life and death.
The cast of Birthday Book of Storms was chosen from the cream of Melbourne’s crop, and it really does show. But with a star out of commission, and a replacement actor so recent that they had to rely on a script on-stage, it was next to impossible to ever get in sync. Despite this, they powered on, with those moments unaffected by the disruption showing proof of the talented people on the stage. While it was perhaps an odd directorial choice to leave “unused” actors on the stage, it did make for more seamless transitions between scenes.
The set design was captivating, an instantly-recognisable library that would convert as needed to different settings in the tale. Peter Mumford did well to capture the magic realism found in the script, accepting a text that was never entirely clear about what exactly this “library” was. The sound design by Aaron Torrance was equally as compelling, melting the library away to stage a beach or rainy day.
La Mama Courthouse is not the easiest stage to light, and actors often fall into shadow at the most inopportune moments. While the use of torchlight in one scene was interesting, this use of creative lighting was perhaps hurt by it being the only example of such a technique.
Birthday Book of Storms is yet another play fictionalising real people, yet another play that presents a (perhaps unintentional) lack of respect for history. Most disappointingly, it suffers the fate that most works about Plath do; it is about Hughes.
While Hughes is never entirely presented as a character to empathise with, he does come across as the only character presented with any depth. More importantly, the women in this play are not offered that same depth.
From the very beginning, Plath is presented as a cardboard cut-out “wronged woman”. This is how many view the relationship and could very well have been Wevill’s take. Perhaps, then, it is forgivable that little mention is given to the mental health struggles of the poet, her struggles with all relationships, her struggles as a mother, or even her tacit approval of Hughes’ philandering in the past.
For a production that attempts to put Wevill and her daughter Shura front and centre, however, we are often very little outside of how Assia felt about the other two people. A monologue about her complex nature as a Jewish Protestant who fled the Nazis and little more. Even then, these elements of her nature do not present themselves in the remaining portrayal of the woman. A play about Wevill’s life outside of the lover’s triangle may have been far more respectful and touching.
Ultimately, this production seems to only continue the trend of allowing Ted Hughes, even after his death, to dictate the stories of the women around him.
For those fascinated with the Plath/Hughes controversy or looking for a well-acted tale of living under the shadow of a ghost, Birthday Book of Storms may open your eyes to a new perspective. Certainly stylish and professional, the production has its merits. However, to fully enjoy the experience, you will need to accept a slightly confused text, the frustrations of performing during a pandemic, and the likely event of walking away feeling not quite fulfilled.