Theatre Kingston returns to the Grand Theatre stage with The Sylvia Effect, written and directed by Peter Hinton-Davis. The play, which opened on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 — the date that would have been Sylvia Plath’s 89th birthday — was originally planned to open last winter, but was forced to close due to the pandemic lockdown.
Both a director and playwright, Peter Hinton-Davis has been working in Canada since the mid-80s doing a wide variety of work, from new plays to classical repertoire and opera. From 2005 to 2012, he was the Artistic Director of English theatre at the National Art Center (NAC). Since that time, he has been in residence in Niagara on the Lake, working with the Shaw festival.
“It’s amazing to be in Kingston and to know that Theatre Kingston exists, doing new plays,” says Hinton-Davis. “We often think of new Canadian work happening a lot in Toronto, Vancouver, and so it’s great that it happens here. Great for the people who live here.”
Hinton-Davis chose Sylvia Plath as his muse, “Because she’s a brilliant poet and great artist, first of all, and one that I think is often misrepresented or misunderstood. People borrow rather freely from so much that is known about her personal life, and that gets transcribed into the poems. And so, there is a kind of myth about Sylvia Plath as the tortured or neurotic or destructive kind of personality. And I think it really misses the mark on what a courageous person she was.”
The play takes its name and inspiration from the notion that poets and artistic people are more susceptible to mental illness. “The Sylvia Plath Effect” was first coined in 2001, by James C. Kaufman, a psychologist who named the effect after Plath, who committed suicide at the age of 30. According to other scholars, the connection between artistic creativity and mental illness remains controversial and up for debate.
“I was really inspired by her and voice,” says Hinton-Davis. However he “was struck by this psychological condition that was proposed in the early 2000s called the ‘Silvia Plath Effect,’ which attempted to draw connections between creativity and psychopathology, which drove me crazy. The choice of words was somehow dangerous. It makes me really worried to hear that because it’s the creative impulse that keeps us alive, that keeps us mindful, that keeps us present to the world that we live in.”
“Sylvia Plath became famous, partly because of the manner of her death. But, as often the case with artistic success, it was also a case of timing. Writing against time. This relationship to time makes her an ideal subject for the theatre. The challenge for me is to get past the tragic story to whatever core of experience or truth might wait on the other side,” he explains.
“We’re trying to deal really mindfully with issues about mental health. She’s a really interesting person, not because of how she died, but rather how she lived and how she saw the world, and what she had to offer us about the world that we live in.”
The play touches on the emotional confessions of four characters simply named: The Daughter, The Poet, The Mother, and The Son. There are poems, lectures, and confessional monologues in the show, but Hinton-Davis doesn’t think one needs to be an expert in Plath or her work to enjoy the play.
“It plays with a lot of different forms, and one of them, a playful one I think for a lot of artists, is it takes place and a kind of afterlife — in a purgatory, if you will. Three of the characters in the play have passed on, and one commits a kind of conjuring to try to bring forward those people from her past. And this purgatory is a radio station in which, for eternity, they are in an interview,” says Hinton-Davis with a touch of irony.
“Like even this interview is so hard,” he points out. “How do I answer the questions to truly represent the play other than come see the play yourself? Because I’m always having my biases. I’m going to have my humility, I’m going to have all these things that we’re going to get in the way, and it really comes down to [the fact that] the play is the thing that ultimately speaks for itself, and you’ll get different things from it then my neighbour will.”
The play, therefore is not a biography of Plath but “rather an imagining,” says Hinton-Davis, “And one of the characters talks about how plays and films love the idea of something being based on a true story, to somehow authorize its fiction. And what she proposes is that when we think about any person — if I were to tell the story of your life and were you to tell mine — what’s interesting is, if you’ve got to imagine something about me, it’s you. Yes, there are facts to get straight and details that exist, but why things happen — only the person who lived those things can really know.”
“You have to do justice to what you know, and you have to do justice to yourself,” he continues, “Like, in some way, you’re reading about yourself. How you would portray Sylvia Plath and how I would portray her would be very different. And that would say something about us.”
“We live how we identify in the world; what positions of privilege and what positions of experience we have, would inform that. That’s what to me is interesting,” says Hinton-Davis, noting the similarities in poetry. “With poetry, it is not that we all get the same meaning; we get different meanings.”
The Sylvia Effect is on stage at the Grand Theatre now through Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. Visit the box office to order tickets. Ticket holders from March 2021 are asked to call the box office to discuss which new performance date they wish to attend. The Grand Theatre Box Office can be reached at 613-530-2050, Monday through Friday from noon until 4:30 p.m.