Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ at The Southbank Centre

Sylvia Plath is one of my favourite writers. I own the ‘restored edition’ of her poetry collection Ariel, which has an introduction from her daughter, Frieda Hughes. It’s a wonderful edition because it includes photocopies of Sylvia’s original manuscript, complete with hand-written notes. I enjoy looking at it as much as I enjoy reading it. It was this edition that was read out by thirty-nine (there are forty poems, keep reading to understand why there’s one short) different actresses, poets and academics at The Southbank Centre on Sunday 26th May. The evening was a celebration of Plath’s work, and part of The London literature Festival.

Frieda introduced the evening with a reserved yet highly emotive speech. I thought she showed incredible bravery discussing her Mother in front of a theatre-full of strangers, something she has, no doubt, had to grow accustomed too. It felt strange to be looking at her and listening to her, knowing she is Plath’s own flesh and blood. Most of my favourite authors are from the nineteenth century, so they have no immediate surviving family. Listening to, and looking at Frieda deliver her speech was an experience I can’t really describe; all I can say is that the impression she left will resonate in my memory every time I pick up Plath’s work from now on.

The reading began. I feel ignorant when I admit that I didn’t know the names of most of the women who stepped up to read, but I can say that they were all excellent. Their articulation and interpretations of Plath’s words were nerve-shreddingly brilliant. The two stand-out performances however, were Emily Bruni’s reading of Lady Lazarus and Juliet Stevenson’s reading of Tulips. I know the poems themselves are incredibly revealing, intimate and tainted with anger and sadness, but when they were read aloud by these two actresses; something seemed to make the air anticipate and the crowd quieten. Their interpretations were flawless.

The presentation is also the first time I have ever heard a recording of Sylvia Plath’s voice (She was the aforementioned fortieth speaker). I have always avoided it because to be quite frank, the idea of her being a real person with a real voice scared me. I prefer to keep Plath on the paper because I feel I can distance myself from her if I start to find her recollections of pain, and confusion frighteningly relatable. The idea of hearing her actual voice would mean that every instance of pain she ever recorded on paper would be cemented in to my reality. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious; I certainly don’t hold this view anymore. The lights were dimmed in the theatre, Sylvia’s photograph was projected on to a screen and her recording of Daddy was played. She didn’t sound how I thought she would; her voice was strangely comforting and maternal, yet at the same time it was cold and authoritative. It nearly brought me to tears.

Once the final poem had been read, the audience erupted in applause. The whole evening felt like such a unique and special thing to be part of; and I’m glad I was lucky enough to get tickets.

One thought on “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ at The Southbank Centre

  1. Her reading of “Daddy” has always been a favorite of mine. Such a horrifying poem, awesome. Wow! I’m jealous. I would have loved to be in your shoes that night! Great post, and Happy Birthday!

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