Actors and poets including Juliet Stevenson and Jo Shapcott will gather to recite the entire collection 50 years on from its publication
"The muse," wrote Sylvia Plath to her friend and fellow poet Ruth Fainlight shortly before her death in 1963, "has come to live here, now Ted has gone". Next month, 50 years after the manuscript which would become Ariel was discovered on the late poet's desk, Fainlight will join a starry, all-female line-up of actors and poets including Juliet Stevenson, Miranda Richardson and Samantha Bond in a unique dramatic reading of Ariel.
Fainlight will take on "Elm", the poem Plath dedicated to her friend and which opens: "I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there." Richardson will read "The Arrival of the Bee Box" ("I would say it was the coffin of a midget / Or a square baby / Were there not such a din in it"), and Gerda Stevenson "Morning Song" ("Love set you going like a fat gold watch"), with 40 performers – from Anna Chancellor to Siobhan Redmond and Harriet Walter - lined up to read the entire restored edition of the original manuscript of Ariel on 26 May as part of the Southbank Centre's London Literature festival.
"It's an utter one-off," said James Runcie, the centre's head of literature, who came up with the idea for the performance at the Royal Festival Hall. "It's not been performed like this before. It's a complete first and it's a big thing to do. It won't be filmed, it won't be recorded – you have to be there. The idea is to pay tribute – all these actors are big fans. It's such an important collection."
The performance is planned to last for 78 minutes, said Runcie, with the actors all on stage at once, coming forward in threes to read their choice of poem. "A few have asked if they could do one of the 'angry ones'," said Runcie, who is now finalising the schedule of who is reading what.
Plath herself, in a recording, will read the collection's most famous poem, "Daddy" ("Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through"), with the evening to be introduced by Plath and Ted Hughes's daughter, Frieda Hughes.
"I hope it won't all be doom and gloom, that there will be light and shade there," said Runcie. "Frieda Hughes has made the point that Ariel begins and ends on a positive note – it starts with the word 'love', and ends with 'spring'."
Along with Fainlight – "it's a coup to get her," said Runcie – some of the UK's best known poets including Jo Shapcott and Gillian Clarke will also join the actors for the reading.
"Ariel is one of the greatest collections of poetry ever written; and this is an opportunity to hear her poems in the order she left them at her death: passionate, angry, ferociously observed and yet also hopeful," said Runcie. "I hope this will be an inspiring tribute to both her memory and her achievement."