Three years after the suicide of his first wife Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes left England with his lover Assia Wevill under a cloud. Retreating to a remote house in Ireland – the Doonreagan House of the title – with his two children by Plath and Wevill’s infant daughter, whom according to this play at least he did not recognise as his own, he sought both the opportunity for a family life and the opportunity to recommence his work.
When the two actors are on stage, the production shows a mixed quality. Both are undoubtedly good actors, and it was quietly pleasing to see an actor playing Hughes who both looked and sounded like Hughes. Of the two roles, that of Assia is the stronger, and it is well performed by Flora Montgomery, who plays her with a brittle waspishness, and moves lightly around the stage. Henning Jocelyn has, however, looked at the monolith that is Ted Hughes, and come up short. How to put words into the mouth of one of Britain’s most famous poets? Where her conception of Wevill is well built, her understanding of Hughes, of his many facets, overwhelms her and we are left with a messy portrayal, whose language and tone are inconsistent and ponderous.
The subtext of Sylvia Plath’s presence and Assia’s eventual suicide are heavy-handedly written in, particularly in the final scene when their return to London has been decreed by Hughes, and though intermittently funny and touching, the play struggles to express itself in clear dialogue with the rhythms of human speech. There are some interesting ideas in here, and the playwright professed that she had originally intended for her research to be the basis of a lecture on this period in Hughes’s life, and I cannot help but think that this would have been a better idea.