Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Some things look better on paper than they turn out to be in reality. This winter’s Candlelight Concerts, Winter’s Tales in the Globe’s small Sam Wanamaker Jacobean theatre seem to offer a cornucopia of goodies. Penny Wilton reading Chekhov, Roger Allam D H Lawrence, Harriet Walter Daphne du Maurier and much else besides.
For fans of Charlotte Rampling, the prospect of seeing her reading Sylvia Plath poems with accompanying Benjamin Britten cello suites seemed utterly enticing. In the event, it proved more of an endurance test. And not just for us audience members. For 40 minutes Rampling, tall, statuesque dressed only in black, like a dancer in repose, held us almost enthralled – her stillness complimented against Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s livid, passionate cellist.
At the best of times, Plath’s poems are not easy to decipher, never mind one imagines to learn. For 40 minutes the dirge and grimness of Plath’s death-obsessed poems were strangely echoed in the jump and drone of Britten, given extraordinary life in Wieder-Atherton’s hands.
Up close and personal, the atmosphere was intense, solemn, attentive. A performed ritual, part choreographed, part `staged’, then Rampling began to stumble . Words stuck in her throat and after the interval, even with a book in her hand – the poems now of Ted Hughes – they refused to flow freely. At one point, she stopped completely, smiled, looked across to her companion who smiled back as if to say, `and now?’ Eventually Rampling found her place but all pretence at `staging’ now gone. Two more poems read including The Blue Flannel Suit, Hughes’ painful recollection of Plath at her graveside. Then it was over.
Neither seemed quite sure what to do next. But the audience roared and Rampling, looking relieved, returned their generosity.
How much the evening illuminated the poems of Plath is a moot point. For 40 minutes, Wieder-Atherton, a phenomenal musician and Rampling, eyes often closed in meditation, appeared as conduits for their respective muses, at once compelling and revealing Britten as by turns atonal, skittish and demanding.
As a whole, though, the evening became shapeless and lacking variation or variety of tone, ultimately and sadly one of only fleeting pleasures.
First published in Reviewsgate in Dec 2014