Theatre review: Birthday Book of Storms

A magical realist imagining of the triangle of poets: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. But whose story is it to tell?

Rosemary Johns has written a magical realist play about the poets Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Hughes’ lover, Assia Wevill, as well as their daughter Shura. Although Plath’s suicide, and the poems that contextualise it, are well known, Wevill’s stature as a poet is comparatively minor, and the shocking fact that her suicide was accompanied by the infanticide of her daughter.

This is a tragedy which cuts to the heart of the feminist and aesthetic themes of second wave feminism. It is a highly charged story, but who’s story is it? How should it be told? And if the rightful owners of the story choose not to tell it, should it be told at all? 

The Birthday Book of Storms hinges on a problem of whether art can memorialise suffering better than the facts. So, when agreeing the facts are so fraught, does fantasy encourage empathy or aggravate pain?

The view of Plath and Hughes’ daughter Frieda, is that creative responses to the suicide are numerous and bewildering. In a poem contemporaneous to the release of the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sylvia, Hughes writes that they are trying to make her mother into a ‘Sylvia suicide doll.’

The author’s way around it is to tell a magical realist story of the dead infant Shura’s search for memories of her parents in a library of memories. But in dramatising the story, Storms relies on the most unappealing kinds of tropes.

The Plath-as-thwarted-domestic-drudge, both embodied in Anita Torrance’s performance and Wevill femme fatale played by Amanda Anastasi, create discomfort with events that may be intrusively imagined or drawn from the record with an uneasy intimacy.

The characters that support the magical realist narrative – two librarians played by the actors that play the poets – are a disconcerting doubling that pair portraits of the poets with portraits of their most unappealing kind of prosecutorial Plath fan.

The second problem with the magical realist narrative is: does the author have a right either to the estate’s memories or to the device of magical realism?

This reviewer says not at this cultural moment. Magical realism has been used by victims of dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, and by third generation Holocaust survivors, to convey the limits of representation to share pain.

When the pain of a suicide is reduced to a cultural interest, it cheapens the ethics of representation. When the vocabulary of an embattled culture is appropriated without acknowledgement of that culture, it confuses the nature of the representation. And when an author takes another subject’s memories, they need permission to enter, not the hollow declaration that their work is a fictional one. 

The irony is this only highlights a second problem of biography in the play. Johns writes in the program notes that she has been interested in Plath for a long time and this love come through in moments of empathy: Hughes’ nurturing of a fox cub he identifies with conveys effectively the affection he was unable to show his wife and child, although Phil Roberts succeeds in creating clarity, if not nuance in his performance as Hughes. 

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But who does a play that culturally appropriates magical realism, as well as borrowing the robes of the suffering of the Plath-Hughes family, help and who does it hurt? It helps enthusiasts for the poems find each other, certainly.

And what is the risk of being aesthetically insensitive, representatively wrong? Only the risk of a difference of opinion. So isn’t staging it worth the risk?

A lot of arts organisations said yes, and who am I to argue? But still, I think it’s a risk that has created yet another ‘Sylvia Suicide Doll’, as well as Assia and Shura accessories.

Birthday Book of Storms by R. Johns
La Mama

Co-Directed by Jaime Dörner & R. Johns

Dramaturg: Sue Ingleton
Graphics Design: Peter Mumford
Lighting Design: Kris Chainey
Sound Design: Aaron Torrance
Stage Manager Operator: Cole McKenna

Cast: Anita Torrance, Amanda Anastasi, Phil Roberts, Jim Daly, Ursula Searle and Robin Kakolyris 

Birthday Book of Storms plays until 28 August 2022.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin