Preheat. I almost want to laugh at the title of SUDS’ latest offering, but that’s because I have a bad sense of humour. The joke, and the play itself, are kind of macabre. A play about the darkly magnetic poet Sylvia Plath and the circumstances leading to her untimely death at her own hand probably cannot be anything else.
First time writer-director Isabella Phillips seems interested in the spectre of Plath’s suicide haunting our understanding of her life and work; she says as much in the show’s program, which reads, “This interest in her biography and literary work sparked the genesis of Preheat.” This is reinforced throughout the play as Anja Bless as Sylvia provides a portentous voiceover which recurs throughout, reciting a recipe in a near flawless imitation of Plath’s sardonic drawl. “Preheat the oven to 215 degrees Fahrenheit,” is heard between scenes near the play’s end. The implication is clear; preheat the oven because Sylvia’s about to stick her head in it. Plath’s impeding death hangs over the entire production and Phillips makes you intensely aware of it.
To that end, many of the performances in Preheat are forceful and foreboding. This approach is understandable; the play deals with emotional themes in a high stakes setting. Scene after scene of shouting, screaming and crying, however, soon became repetitive and difficult to watch. While the actors made an admirable attempt at conveying the anguish of Plath’s life, loudness does not immediately signify emotional intensity and the production could have benefitted from a touch of subtlety in some scenes.
The ensemble cast, featuring a number of actors shifting through roles as Plath’s friends, literary characters and functioning as a kind of chorus are the major perpetrators of this. Scenes in which Sylvia and three characters from her works are ordered around by an army general and a scene in which the cast create a soundscape by shouting simultaneously at the audience while additional noises crackle through a speaker are the worst offenders. Each of these scenes would be impactful on their own but the constant barrage of various noises, as well as the highly tense and emotional scenes between Sylvia and Ted Hughes, ultimately deadened their effect and made for an uncomfortable viewing experience.
In spite of this, Bless as Sylvia is a standout in the cast as she captures Plath’s sense of gloomy charisma and energy. She replicates Plath’s voice and accent skilfully, but more so is able to embody the frustration and distress which seems to permeate Plath’s work and interaction with the world. Jack Kincaid makes a valiant attempt as Ted, and while he engages with the conflicting images of Plath’s husband as a loving man and as the driving factor behind her suicide he seemed unable to form the same connection with the audience as Bless. This may be intentional, however; the play is about Plath, after all.
In addition to utilising and ensemble cast with a feature on two major characters, Preheat features a non-linear narrative structure to explore Plath’s life and work. Sometimes, this is very effective. For example, the opening scene in which three of Plath’s characters perform a movement piece while reciting lines from her poetry contextualises the rest of the play well. Occasionally the flexible structure of Preheat is less enjoyable, as the various similar scenes depicting Plath’s unhappiness in the middle of the play become somewhat muddled and run together. Phillips does make use of major events in Plath’s life, such as the birth of her first child, as anchors with which to centre the rest of the production around and these prevent the play from becoming difficult to follow. The scene focussing on the birth of Plath’s child particularly is an excellent example of the non-linear structure of the play working effectively. Here Sylvia’s complex varying tumultuous emotions and the conflict with her husband over having children are able to be represented in a short sequence. Scenes like this raise the production from the realm of biopic, and allow it to explore Plath’s life thematically rather than strictly biographically.
The costuming in Preheat is also an asset as it serves to evoke the time period of Plath’s life well, and the creative use of lighting reflects the emotional content of the scenes. Here, the use of a red wash for scenes which seemed to consist of Plath’s fraught internal monologue was particularly effective. The set was a centrepiece of the production, consisting of a series of five doors which, according to the program, “represent aspects of Plath’s life and character.” These doors were used to great effect, allowing the space of the stage to be malleable; simultaneously domestic and intangible as each scene required. However, this sense of elasticity was undermined by the constant changing of props and furniture between scenes. A play of this nature, which is essentially nonlinear and cerebral, had the opportunity to dispense with clumsy set changes and this aspect unfortunately distracted from the rest of the performance.
While Preheat does have some issues which affected my enjoyment of the production, the play should be commended on its creative exploration of the life of Sylvia Plath. If you are a Plath fan, you will enjoy this play. If you’re not a Plath fan, the empathetic treatment of her life and work in Preheat might help to make you one.