Ted Hughes’s life was filled with struggle, glamour and sexual liaisons. His brief marriage to Sylvia Plath was intense and turbulent, and a period over which there has been endless specluation. Doonreagan, however, takes a later period in Hughes’s life: the brief time of stability between himself and Assia Wevil as they settled down together as a couple after Plath’s suicide.
Doonreagan is an ample cottage in the Irish Connemara landscape, and was a place of tranquillity and family for both Hughes and Wevil. This short play explores the juxtapositions between the stability that Doonreagan forced upon their relationship, and the true turbulence of their dissatisfactions with each other. The play suggests that no matter how much Hughes was attracted to Wevil, he could not get over that she was ‘not Sylvia’. Wevil, on the other hand, feels closeted by the remoteness of Doonreagan, the children who needed attending to and Hughes’s insistence that this was the best place for her – a city girl – to thrive on the simple life. The intense duologue between Hughes and Wevil, coupled with the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre, makes this piece play emotionally claustrophobic, not least because the audience are seated so close to the actors. This is particularly effective when Wevil speaks of how she is constrained by the walls of Doonreagan and her longing for the cosmopolitan life.
Daniel Simpson is excellent at Hughes, capturing the struggle between his natural sexual charge and creative bursts against his desire to be a well-respected and stable family man. Flora Montgomery uses her tall, slender physique to portray Wevil as a mysterious ‘Femme Fatale’, only revealing her vulnerability and fear through the eyes. The ghost of Sylvia Plath is the elephant in the room, and is addressed by Hughes as if she is still present. The script, by Ann Henning Jocelyn, is well structured in its narrative, arching over a period in Hughes’s and Wevil’s relationship beginning at relative peace, transitioning to unrest and ending on a bitter note, The dialogue, however, is somewhat over-descriptive, so that the actors are not given enough time to communicate emotion purely with their physicality, and appear to feel constrained by the unnatural number of words they have to say.
The set is simple yet elegant, providing a peek into the front room of Doonreagan with a period sofa, desk and gramophone. With the audience seated so close to the action, it feels as if we are part of the fabric of the house, and the sense of being ‘watched’ is part of Hughes’s and Wevil’s daily life. Alex Dmitriev (director) has kept the action simple and intimate, so that the audience feel welcomed to Doonreagan, but also at the same time as if they are unwelcome voyeurs on a messy family drama, that we all know (due to Wevil’s suicide a few years later) ended unhappily.
Doonreagon is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 21 September. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website. Photography by Ludovic Des Cognets.