Review of Alcestis

by Elaine Connell who maintains the Sylvia Plath Forum
Friday, September 22, 2000

At a recent reading of a selection of Ted Hughes’ poetry given by Barry Rutter in Hebden Bridge, the actor/director joked that he refused to, "Gloat about the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments at the National Theatre and the RSC," which took place when those institutions learned that the late Poet Laureate had entrusted his last work Alcestis to Rutter’s Calderdale based Northern Broadsides’ Theatre.

Hughes’ trust was not misplaced, as his stunning finale received an enthralling, energetic and perceptive interpretation / performance by the ensemble. The Viaduct Theatre set in the cellar of the former Dean Clough Mill provided an appropriate, murky setting for this play about mankind’s relationship with life, death, suffering, Fate and God.

Euripides’ classical Greek drama tells the story of Alcestis, wife of Admetos, King of Thessaly who offers her own life in stead of her husband’s when a vengeful God, who holds a grudge against his patron Apollo, demands Admetos’ death. Admetos, whose own elderly parents have refused to sacrifice themselves for their son, is forced to accept for the sake of his kingdom and its people. Alcestis’ only condition is that Admetos should never remarry and she dies amidst great mourning by her family and the King’s subjects.

The play is a good illustration of the anatomy of grief and early mourning. Admetos displays yearning for the loved one, anger and hostility towards family and friends and sinks into an apparently hopeless despair.

He is rescued from this despair by the life affirming traditions of his society and by the arrival of his friend Heracles, son of Zeus and a mortal woman, who is on his way to perform one of his labours. Because of the Greek custom of "guest right" he does not tell Heracles of his loss and orders his servants to protect his friend from this knowledge.

Heracles and his rowdy entourage stage a drunken re-enactment of his twelve labours. He is mortified by his behaviour when he finally learns of Alecestis’ death and performs a thirteenth labour by going into Hades to fight Death and return Alcestis to his friend. Alcestis, who is temporarily silent, is restored to Admetos and the play ends on a note of great triumph of the power of life over death.

The play was superbly acted by a cast who had real, rather than stage Northern accents, dispelling the southern, cultural notion that great literature can only be performed by actors using the dialect of the south-east. Northern Broadsides proved yet again that regional accents can be as, if not more powerful than the received pronunciation of the Home Counties. The performance of David Hounslow, as Heracles was particularly outstanding. One felt that one had met his type in almost any Yorkshire pub. Hughes is not generally known for his humour, but Heracles was funny in the tough, bombastic yet loyal way of many Northern, working class men.

The autobiographical elements of Hughes’ mourning for his late wife, Sylvia Plath overlies the entire play as does the poignancy of the knowledge that he wrote this with the sense of his own impending death. There is the constant idea that great gifts (such as the poetic and intellectual powers which Hughes and Plath possessed and the power and fame of Admetos and Alcestis) bring a price: the temptation for Fate or the Gods to bring down those mortals who aspire to immortal powers.

However, though Death is powerful, he can be defeated by the power of the human spirit to resist, create and continue. The play ends on a triumphant note with the late Poet Laureate’s message to us from the edge of the grave:

Nothing is certain.
What had seemed inevitable
Comes to nothing.

And now
See how God has accomplished
What was beyond belief.

Let this give man hope.