Charlotte Rampling Reads Sylvia Plath to the music of Benjamin Britten. Danses Nocturnes. Place des Arts, Montréal. September 18, 2014.
~Reviewed by Cora Siré
On a recent Friday night, I took my seat in the small theatre of Place des Arts’ Cinquième Salle with more smug detachment than keen anticipation. Charlotte Rampling was about to read the poems of Sylvia Plath accompanied by cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton playing Benjamin Britten. Never mind that the show, running for three nights as part of Montréal’s Festival international de la littérature, has successfully toured Europe including Spain, France, and Switzerland. Never mind that Charlotte Rampling, the British actress famous for her intense sensuality, has appeared in about eighty films directed by the likes of Woody Allen and Lars Von Trier.
No, my detachment was personal and had to do with my past obsession with the ghost of Sylvia Plath—an obsession that now, minutes before opening night, feels quite passé. So why am I here? In recognition of Plath’s place in the literary canon, for one, followed by curiosity and nostalgia. I suspect many others can relate: Plath represents a few bygone stages in my life, beginning with adolescence, when her poems gripped me, when I completely identified with her noisy quest for freedom, her tough lyrics, and her despair. In my twenties, I studied her work, wrote papers about her posthumously published collection, Ariel, and her novel, The Bell Jar, and analysed her with my friends over late-night beers. Our naively self-important pronouncements were meant to decipher how it was that this ground-breaking poet with her powerful imagination and penchant for confessional verses, this pre-feminist icon with a cultish following and an apparently promising literary career, died the way she did, abruptly and tragically. In 1963, at the age of thirty-three, Plath gassed herself with a kitchen oven in her flat in London, England. Decades later, her words stoked me and my friends; we were attracted to her refusal to be nice and, voyeuristically, to her madness.
Now, another few decades later, the lights dim and the audience settles expectantly, shoulder to shoulder, gazes raised to the stage. They are, for the most part, of a certain age, decidedly over forty, and, it will soon emerge, a forgiving group of women and men. The set is barebones—a chair for the cellist placed near an ottoman. Two women take their places, ready to haunt, dressed in black.
Charlotte Rampling stands before us, waifish in a sleeveless tunic over tights. Spotlights capture the skin of her bare arms, feet, and face against a sea of blackness. She begins “Lady Lazarus” in her husky voice: “I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it…”
That’s all it takes for my smug detachment to fade into rapture. Here is Plath describing two previous suicide attempts, twenty-eight triplets from Ariel that build in layers of shocking images: the skin “bright as a Nazi lampshade,” “the eye pits,” “sour breath,” “the worms,” and the prescient, “This is Number Three.”
But more than half way through the first poem, Rampling falters. “There is a charge…” She stops. And tries again. “And there is a charge, a very large charge…,” pauses to find the lines, cannot, and turns towards the French translation projected on the screen behind her. But no, the words are lost. For anyone who recites to an audience, this is the nightmare. It unfolds, like Plath’s triplets, in a harrowing tempo.
“Shit,” Rampling says, “this never happens.” She walks stage right, can’t find the backstage entrance in the dark, crosses before us to stage left, and disappears. We sit, wondering. What now?
Many seconds later, she reappears with a sheaf of papers. The audience applauds. “You are too kind,” she says. Wisely, she requests a rewind of the French subtitles and starts over. A few more missteps, but she manages to get through “Lady Lazarus” to its bitter end: “And I eat men like air.”
Then the cello begins the “Declamato” from Benjamin Britten’s suite number two. We should be looking at Sonia Wieder-Atherton, the slow bow on the strings of her cello producing a haunting dissonance. But we’re watching Charlotte Rampling seated on the ottoman arranging the sheaf of papers. Will she use them to deliver the ten remaining poems? Soon she lays the papers on the floor and reclines, breathing, waiting for her cue. The piece ends and she begins “The Night Dances.” All is well until her microphone gives off some scratchy reverb. First she ignores it. Then she stops again. We wait. A crew member shuffles onto the stage, checks her mic, and obliges her to lift the back of her tunic so he can adjust the remote transmitter. Rampling laughs ruefully. The audience laughs with her and applauds again. I am bemused by their patience and kindness—they will, at the end of the show, give her a standing ovation. But I can’t help thinking: the tickets were not inexpensive and Plath deserves better.
Another musical interlude and, after the second poem, Rampling does her work. She gives us “Edge,” written six days before Plath committed suicide. Her last poem. It’s all here, the warning of what’s to befall the poet: “The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment….” Rampling’s voice rises ever so slowly to the sucker punch of the last line: “Her blacks crackle and drag.” The ghost is alive!
Interspersed among the death songs, serving as both response and reprieve, are the sonorous, twisting melodies of the cello as Sonia Wieder-Atherton plays the various movements of Benjamin Britten’s suites two and three. The music, first performed by Rostropovich at the Edinburgh Festival in 1965, is of Plath’s time and responds to her words as if in conversation. Just as the poems build, so does the cello—from a slow Fuga to the Scherzo, a fast allegro molto. We are pushed into the abyss. And the journey is convoluted and painful. This show is Wieder-Atherton’s creation. She came up with the idea of playing Britten to Rampling’s recital of Plath and her engagement behind the cello is complete. The music works because it is as circular and lyrical and, at times, as scathing as the poetry.
Rampling keeps her body quite still. For each poem, she adopts a different position. Sometimes she’s seated on the ottoman, slouching back or leaning forward. Other times she stands stage left or centre. At sixty-eight, she’s still gorgeous—the high cheekbones, intelligent forehead, and dark, narrow eyes—with a natural elegance to her body. She reads the verses, most from Ariel, including the title poem, with a seething intensity that befits her prickly nature:
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Later, it’s the fearsome “Daddy,” sixteen quatrains portraying Plath’s German father as a Hitler-figure. With fake girlishness, the poet delivers her final revenge on the father who died, abandoning her when she was young: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”
The music slows towards the end. Wieder-Atherton strikes the strings of the cello and it sounds like the tolling of a bell. Rampling gives us “Medusa,” the poem that skewers the poet’s mother: “Off, off eely tentacle! / There is nothing between us.”
For just over one hour, the two performers do their best to give life to the words of Sylvia Plath. The context is not passé but dazzlingly relevant. Dead poets can still bring meaning to our world; Sylvia Plath’s take on the Freudian complexities of ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ and ‘daughter’ is timeless and her refusal to be nice about it is a reminder to those of us who try to write true. And Rampling’s resolute determination is a fine example of grace under pressure, one that I’ll remember if I ever give a reading that derails. If there is one criticism, beyond the opening fumbling, it might be that Rampling’s British accent and intonation do not always do justice to Plath’s essentially American syntax. And there are times when Rampling’s voice, rather than lifting to Plath’s sarcastic anger in the closing lines, drops to an inhalation that, with its lack of energy, feels understated. This muted delivery makes the music sound overplayed in some moments, as if there’s too much effort in Wieder-Atherton’s interpretation of Britten’s suites, her red hair flying as her bow seesaws the strings.
But ultimately, there is authenticity here and I can’t help but think that Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, would not despair. In Ariel—The Restored Edition published in 2004, she writes in the introduction:
My mother’s poems cannot be crammed into the mouths of actors in any filmic reinvention of her story…. Since she died my mother has been dissected, analyzed, reinterpreted, reinvented, fictionalized, and in some cases completely fabricated. It comes down to this: her own words describe her best, her ever-changing moods defining the way she viewed her world and the manner in which she pinned down her subjects with a merciless eye.
And so we have Plath in her own words, intermingling with the music in a dialogue that moves through the poet’s moods. There is grief, hysteria, desperation and mania, but the performance, as a whole, does not sag with sadness but lifts into enlightenment and triumph. The closing poem, from 1960 and the only one not written within months of Plath’s death, is “Love Letter” about the poet’s awakening, growth, and final ascension as she floats through the air “a sort of god.” Rampling’s last words are plausibly Plath’s: “It’s a gift.”
The resurrected ghost goes silent. Darkness descends.
Cora Siré lives in Montréal where she writes poetry, essays and fiction. She is the author of Signs of Subversive Innocents (Signature Editions, 2014).
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