I first came upon the text of Sylvia Plath's verse play Three Women in summer 2006, while I was on holiday in Croatia. I didn't know she'd written a play, so for a theatre director always on the lookout for projects, the best ones that give you that heady buzz of excitement when you think of them, it was like a gift. As soon as I read it, I realised that this was a text to uplift and inspire readers and audiences. I had what Peter Brook calls that instinctive knowledge that this is the play that has to be done and it has to be done NOW.
The word now, of course, is relative… It wasn't that quick to get permission. The final agreement only came through in June 2008. I was really in a hurry by then.
The play was written for radio and was first broadcast on August 19 1962, with a cast including the legendary British screen actor Jill Balcon. It describes the emotional journey of three women through pregnancy. One of them gives birth successfully, one of them has a miscarriage and one of them, a student, has to give her baby up for adoption. There was no legal abortion in the days when Plath wrote.
Plath lays bare the inner lives of these three women. She expresses, I think, what every pregnant woman knows but don't usually find the words for. In a way, she validates the everyday routine experiences of being pregnant. Well, that's what this man believes. And there are some great lines and extraordinary images.
What it certainly does is create a response. People behave differently after reading it. When I asked the receptionists at the Croatian hotel to print it out for me, their only interest was in how much they could charge me per page. There were several pages and their eyes were alight in anticipation of the money to be made from this tourist. When I went back to collect it, they wouldn't take a penny from me for printing quite a long document. Their eyes were alight in an entirely different way. It's been like that ever since.
1700 actors (all of them women, I think) applied for the three roles, from as far away as New York and Los Angeles, a well-known film actor among them. How could I afford to employ a movie star? But what a tribute to Sylvia…
Taking a radio play written in verse and making it work on stage is a risk. I have been blessed with the best cast any director could hope for. It's the sort of risk that has to be taken, thrilling and terrifying, inevitable and impossible to predict the result. Rehearsing this show has provided the excitement that only the theatre at its best can give. And it leaves me with a yearning thought - what wonderful dramatic writing would Sylvia Plath have produced if only we could have had her for longer?
Robert Shaw, Director