Birthday Book of Storms

Hannah Playhouse, Cnr Courtenay Place & Cambridge Terrace, Wellington

02/08/2023 - 10/08/2023

Production Details

Directed by Jaime Dörner
Assistant director & written by R.Johns
Dramaturge: Sue Ingleton

La Mama Theatre

Set in a mysterious library where poems and writers come to life, as a day librarian and night librarian reveal secrets to a girl about the hidden history of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Assia Wevill.

‘Birthday Book of Storms’ is an imagined retelling of events in the life of the iconic poets Plath and Hughes and artist Assia Wevill. Set in a twilight magical realist world, the events of their fateful, tragic lives are investigated by a girl wanting to know who she is and her forgotten place in their story. The play highlights the choices these protagonists made, and the consequences of their choices upon her.

The play, a Griffin Award finalist, through fictional retelling is focused on the feminine in the Hughes saga.

Hannah Playhouse
Wednesday 2nd August – preview, 7:30pm
Thursday 3rd August – 7:30pm
Friday 4th August – 7:30pm
Saturday 5th August – 7:30pm
Sunday 6th August – matinee, 2pm
Tuesday 8th August – relaxed performance, 7:30pm
Wednesday 9th August – 7:30pm
Thursday 10th August – 7:30pm, Closing night

Content warning: suicide referred to

Graphics & Design by Peter Mumford
Performed by Anita Torrance, Tania Lentini, Phil Roberts, Jim Daly and Robin Kakolyris
Lighting Design by Natala Gwiazdzinski
Sound Design by Aaron Torrance
Lighting Operator Pierce Barber
Image by Peter Mumford

Theatre ,

98 minutes, no intermission

Ambitious scope dramatised with a surprisingly light touch in polished production

Review by Tim Stevenson 05th Aug 2023

Content warning: This review includes references to acts of suicide and related events, as does the play being discussed.

The setting – a darkened library. At the back of the library, a young girl with flowing hair stands quietly. In the background, the sound of waves. Take note – all of these elements are, or will turn out to be, significant.

We have an idea of what to expect when the play begins, from the program we received at the theatre door. The young girl is on a quest. She wants to understand the mysteries of her life; the people who are important to her, what happened between them, what she meant to them.

The library is where she’s seeking answers to her mysteries. There will be two librarians, one for day, one for night. It’s no ordinary library, and the librarians have powers you (probably) don’t get at librarian school. Not only can they retrieve information; they can take the young girl back to witness, sometimes to relive, passages between the important people.

The important people, and we also know this from the program, are the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and the artist Assia Wevill. The mysteries the young girl wants to explore are the stories of what happened to them and their relationships.

Many of us will already know what dark and terrible territory we’re entering – extremes of anger and despair, mental illness, two suicides, three deaths, two adults, one child. There are moments of joy and love, but they’re coloured by what we know is coming.

The style and language is often poetic, allusive, dream-like. The natural world of birds, animals, the sea, intertwines with the world of magic and meaningful coincidence. At the same time, the narrative makes brisk and linear progress, always staying in touch with facts, dates, the order of events, like a detective story.

The scope of Birthday Book of Storms is ambitious. The relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes began in 1956 and lasted six years. Assia Wevill killed herself and her daughter by Hughes in 1965. The play’s exploration of the lives of its characters takes us back to the America of Plath’s youth, to the trenches of World War I (where Hughes’ father served), and to Nazi Germany and Lebanon as it tracks Wevill’s life before she arrived in the UK. There’s also commentary on Hughes’ life after 1965 – respectability and fame, the poet laureateship, awarded the Order of Merit by the Queen.

With so much ground to cover in the span of a performance, writer R.Johns (with dramaturge Sue Ingleton) has had to make judicious choices. The results can seem surprisingly light-touch. The horrors are there in front of us, but not dwelt on. Or perhaps she has in mind what Marcel Duchamp said, about the artist doing 50% of the work, the viewer doing the other 50%, and is leaving us to colour in the details. (Your squeamish reviewer tried not to imagine what it must have been like for the children.)

Also ambitious is Johns’ decision to make both Plath and Wevill the subject of her play. One connecting thread is obvious but won’t be mentioned here, to avoid spoilers. Another connecting thread is the presence of Ted Hughes as lover, husband (Plath only) and father (two children with Plath, one with Wevill). One consequence is that Hughes’ relationships with women becomes a major motif.

This has a hefty impact on the play’s tone and direction. Hughes comes across mostly as a charm-free, self-indulgent old-school misogynist, so the play spends a fair amount of time delving into how and why he was such a bastard towards women. Partnering this is a theme of two strong, creative, independent women trapped in a dead-end relationship with the same insensitive character, tied down by economic necessity and the responsibility of looking after their, and his, children.

This view of Hughes may well be historically accurate, but I suspect that the play has its thumb slightly on the scales when making its artistic choices. For example, Hughes had all the charm in the world and the voice to go with it, as amply recorded on YouTube. Phil Roberts in the role of Hughes sounds like some discontented North Country comedian prone to complaining about modern women – think the late lamented Les Dawson, only not so warm, smart or funny.

Hughes wasn’t even much of a poet, according to one of the librarians (“mythological pastiche”), so it’s easy to understand why the figures of Plath and Wevill spend so much of their time on stage regretting or scolding. Why did they both end up in disastrous relationships with the same man? That is the obvious question, to which the play suggests some tentative answers.

This production comes with the high polish acquired in and leading up to a previous Australian season. There’s an impressively strong and able cast: Anita Torrance (day librarian/Sylvia Plath), Tania Lentini (Night librarian/Assia Wevill), Phil Roberts (Ted), Jim Daly (old man) and Robin Kakolyris (girl). Jaime Dörner’s direction is tight, the lighting (Natala Gwiazdzinski) is well designed to keep the narrative flowing and hits every cue on time. There were a couple of fumbles in delivery on the first night; these will be smoothed out by now, as the actors get back into their groove.


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