Sylvia Plath 60 Years On in Dead Poets Live

Words by
Lisa Barnard

8th February 2023

Opening night: Actress Denise Gough gives a haunting rendition of Sylvia Plath’s life and poems 60 years on as part of the Dead Poets Live series


It is strange to contemplate that Sylvia Plath would have turned 90 this weekend on 11 February. The poet’s life was famously cut short at the age of 30 by her suicide in London’s Primrose Hill, shortly after her marriage with the poet Ted Hughes broke up. 60 years on, Sylvia Plath's life and poetry are being re-enacted as part of the series Dead Poets Live in the atmospheric setting of Wilton’s near Spitalfields.  Plath is played by the sparky Irish actress Denise Gough, who lends a mid-Atlantic lilt to the voice of the American-born poet, as she leads the audience through an entrancing tour of Plath's life and poems in an evocative narration.

The performance certainly lives up to Dead Poets Live’s laudable mission, which is “putting poetry on the stage, drawing together the most exciting performers and the most inspiring venues to bring our greatest poetry to new audiences”.  Dead Poets Live have a winning format for their theatre-meets-poetry concept. I suspect it is economically produced - the leading star reads rather recites, hence the scattered papers by the end of the performance. It would be an enormous task to learn that much poetry and maximising proceeds is important as it all goes to a nominated chairty, in this case one I personally support Safe Passage. 

Vignettes from Plath’s life, from childhood to her final days, are interwoven with poems, giving glimpses of her life and fragments of her inner feelings. Her co-narrator James Lever, who is also the Director and co-writer with Olly Rowse, added context and texture in a carefully crafted script. Gough’s interpretation of Plath brought to life the complexities of her character, ranging from down-to-earth wryness to depths of emotion and despair. There is even the occasional wisp of humour, not normally associated with Plath, such as her recurrent, unfulfilled, vow: “I must learn German”.



Denise Gough as poet Sylvia Plath in Dead Poets Live
Denise Gough stars as the poet Sylvia Plath in Dead Poets Live (photo credit Tara Rowse)

Denise Gough stars as the poet Sylvia Plath in Dead Poets Live

Plath’s poetry, especially the voice of Ariel, is of course the centrepiece of the evening and some of the best-known poems, such as The Moon and the Yew Tree are interspersed with others such as The Couriers . “Love, love my season” is echoing in my ears. Tension was tangible as Gough gave a haunting rendition of Lady Lazarus “Out of the Ash/I rise with my red hair/and I eat men like air”. As the words of her final poem Edge, written on 5 February 1963, 6 days before she took her life, were recited, evoking the image of a woman and two children in death, it felt like an emotional goodbye to the extraordinary Plath. 

There are still a few tickets left for the two remaining performances, tonight and tomorrow, so catch it if you can. The venue alone of Wilton's, the oldest Grand Music Hall in the world, is well worth a visit. If not, we will wait for the next Dead Poet Live to reappear with bated breath.

All proceeds from the performances go to Safe Passage, the charity which creates safe routes for refugees. Dead Poets Live is funded by TS Eliot Foundation.

Sixty Years On Dead Poets Live, Wilton’s Music Hall 7-9 February

60 Years after the poet Sylvia Plath Dead Poets Live
60 Years after the poet Sylvia Plath Dead Poets Live