After The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath's novel makes for a tricky play, but writer James Johnson's script is 'unblemished and blissful'
The Bell Jar is a tricky book and makes for a tricky play. The subsequent fate of the author Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide a few months after the book was published) – and the obvious parallels between her own life and that of her protagonist – colour James Johnson’s adaptation and, particularly, the ambiguous ending.
It is hard to draw the fiction from a real life, already partly fictionalised through tabloid smears and Hollywood gloss. Even the fact the novel was originally published under a pseudonym (Victoria Lucas) could be taken two ways: either Plath sought to distance herself from such painful personal material, or she wished not to tarnish her reputation as a poet.
The stage for this Green Room Productions show in the Crescent Arts Centre is a teenage girl’s bedroom. 'A White Sports Coat' by Marty Robbins is playing. As the audience file in, a girl wanders listlessly about the stage, sprawling on the crumpled bed, flicking through magazines.
She is bare-foot, auburn haired and, as she taps on her typewriter or scratches angrily at a piece of paper, clearly has aspirations to be an author of some kind. At the foot of her bad is an open suitcase: the literal mad-woman’s underclothes.
'I was supposed to be having the time of my life the summer they executed the Rosenbergs.' (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for espionage in June of 1953.) This is Esther Greenwood, our Plath manqué, as she launches into her frothily opaque opening monologue. She is witty and arch, throwing sophomoric bon mots around with gay abandon.
But there is flintiness to her too; a kernel of something desperate, agitated. She is certainly not as comfortable as her flat mate Doreen, a blousy good-time girl, with a penchant for dropping Esther in dreadful situations. They are interns at fashion magazine Lady’s Day, but suburban Bostonian Esther is finding the endless partying difficult, feeling 'like a shopping trolley at the mercy of a drunk'.
She meets a succession of grotesque men – preening DJ Lenny Shepherd ('Isn’t he a card?' 'Yes. My condolences'), and the Peruvian Marco, described by Esther as 'the first woman hater I ever met', something Marco goes on to prove with tendon-popping aggression.
Childhood sweetheart Buddy crawls out of the woodwork (literally, entrances are made through wardrobes and from under beds throughout the play). Buddy and Esther first kiss at his twin sister’s funeral – she is, inevitably, a suicide: suicide looms over the text like a phantom. Buddy is a dullard, an unimaginative medical student, pragmatic in his everyday dealings with cadavers, something which holds a horrific fascination for Esther.
He cannot see beyond the trappings of the post-war American patriarchal status quo. When Esther rebuffs his proposal with the assertion that she will never marry, all he can think to do is call her 'crazy'. It is to prove prophetic, however.
On her return to Boston, her mother greets her with the words 'there’s a rejection letter waiting for you', and so begins Esther's descent into sleeplessness, depression, misapplied electroshock therapy (from yet another self-regarding man) and a series of increasingly serious attempts on her life.
It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, does it? And it isn’t, but the script is peppered with scalpel sharp one-liners and moments of poetic flourish. For instance, Esther describes her illness thus: 'I felt heavy; like cotton in a glass of water.' The spiderwebs in the cellar, where she makes her most deliberate attempt on her life, are described 'as cold-war cotton candy'. The text shivers with these jewelled descriptions.
Louise Parker as Esther is practically perfect. Her spiky nerviness is beautifully judged, and her dead-pan put downs sail over the rest of the character’s heads. She is always the smartest person in the room; so why can’t she be happy? Physically, too, she is apt. Pale, hollow-eyed and angular, she is never relaxed, always on edge, waiting for the rug to be pulled from beneath her.
It is a difficult role. She is her own narrator, and the prose is often ornate and difficult, but her bumpy journey through Esther’s often teeming thought processes is measured and precise. Mary Frances Loughran, too, in a dual role as Southern Belle Doreen and, in particular, as Esther’s chaotic room-mate Joan, shines throughout, gifted with some of the plays pithier one-liners, which she never fails to own.
After the Bell Jar is a classy and imaginative work, a difficult piece adapted with fluency and style. To crassly adopt a line from the play, the performance was itself is 'unblemished and blissful'.