At the age of 17 Sylvia Plath referred to herself in her diary as ‘the girl who wanted to be god’, this use of the past tense perhaps foreshadowing her early demise. In trying to comprehend Plath’s art we must submit to her mythic status as poet, mother and wife – a legacy that all-too often blurs her words. It is difficult to comprehend who Plath was without engaging with her as an icon, and without ultimately regarding death as her legacy.
Using Plath’s poems, diaries, and letters to her mother, Karen Corbett, Rosemary Johns and Brenda Palmer created Sylvia Plath: The Girl Who Wanted to be God. The New Performance Company toured their production to Port Fairy and Athens for the 2000 International Women’s Writers Festival. In this re-staging, director Brenda Palmer enlists the help of Laura Hill, Carolyn Masson and Peppa Sindar to tell Plath’s story, along with singer Kasey Gambling.
The three performers each represent an aspect of Plath, fragmenting the author’s psyche into a child, adult and parent, each taking the lead as her story unfolds. The script touches on the seminal points of her biography: the childhood death of Plath’s father, her first mental breakdown, her first publication and falling in love with Ted Hughes. For fans of the author, each episode is informed by her writing and the script interweaves Plath’s words to remind us of her literary prowess.
This form doesn’t shed new light on the events of Plath’s life though, and as the play moves in chronological order it leaves one waiting for the inevitable suicide to end it. Dissecting Plath into three parts creates a schizophrenic cacophony between alter egos, and without the perspective of any other characters it is no wonder that this version of Plath goes insane. The constant nagging doubts leave no room for us to see Plath as being truly alive in a moment. We again lose our author to metaphor, unable to see her as a real person.
Most distracting are the unflattering pajama sets that distinguish each alter ego by gaudy colour, suggestive of a nurses’ uniform or someone perpetually infirmed. The staging is minimal to further abstraction, and only the use of a converted chair/ladder occupies the performers. Gambling patiently watches from the side of the stage, remaining uninvolved except to sing the occasional number. It seemed like a missed opportunity to have this extra person lingering nearby, and her help could have been better used to clarify transitions.
The ensemble maintains their earnest dedication throughout this Plath tribute, but the play ultimately suffers from a lack of unique interpretation. Plath has been adopted as a feminist hero, and fans regularly chisel the name Hughes from her gravestone. There is no new insight to be found in a representation of Plath as a besieged housewife. Sylvia Plath: the girl who wanted to be god merely reminded me to return to the page, as Plath’s words are the closest we can get to her self.
New Performance Company presents
Sylvia Plath: The Girl Who Wanted to Be GOD
by Karen Corbett, Rosemary Johns and Brenda Palmer
Directed by Brenda Palmer
Venue: Gallery 314 | 314 Church Street, Richmond
Dates: 12 - 20 Feb, 2010
Tickets: $20 / $16 Concession
Bookings: 03 9572 0405