Edinburgh Fringe 2009
‘Three Women’ is Sylvia Plath’s only play, an exploration of the joys and agonies of childbirth. It traces three different experiences of pregnancy and childbirth: the first character has a normal birth and a healthy baby, the second has a miscarriage and the third is a student who gives up her baby for adoption.
‘Three Women’ is written in verse, and so strong is the imagery that the effect is that of immersion in an extended Plath poem rather than a play. There is about it something of the mystical and transcendent – it is not hard to understand the three women as the tri-part goddess, as different facets of our collective feminity. This is a play more concerned with voicing universal fears and truths than in telling the stories of individuals.
The sense of immersion is heightened by Robert Shaw’s production, which lets Plath’s words be the deserved focus. Although the play takes place in a maternity ward, the set itself is simple, the backdrop of wood-framed white screens more reminiscent of Japanese theatre than the hospital. There is something spare and austere about these blank white screens that is somehow more frightening than a hospital ward could be – they speak of things unseen, covered up. This austerity is carried through in the women’s clothes, simple to the point of severity in black and grey. Nevertheless, they are defined by their clothes as perhaps only women can be defined – the student in her leggings and shirt, the mother in a flowing linen dress, and, most damning of all, the woman who cannot bring a child to term in a power suit.
This is a fantastic production, although there were times when I wished that the masterful restraint that had been applied to set and costume had been carried through to the direction. Lara Lemon in particular seems to have graduated from the Keira Knightley school of acting, with pouts and over-enunciation taking precedence over emotion. Plath’s words are so loaded, so humming with tension that their delivery walks a fine line lest it tips into melodrama – a line that was too often crossed, fine actresses though they all are.
Minor quibbles aside, this is a powerful, well-staged production. It is also a fantastic, rare opportunity to see Plath’s only play, a work written at the height of her powers.