He started work on his greatest verse cycle; she painted, wrote and danced. Laura Barnett reports on a new play trying to uncover the truth about the relationship between the poet and his married lover
Doonreagan House stands on the curve of Cashel Bay in Connemara, on Ireland's remote west coast. It is a handsome, whitewashed building, its wide front windows looking out over the Atlantic. Behind it, under a wide summer sky, looms a high outcrop of rock and peat, wild as the miles of mountain and moorland that separate the village of Cashel from the nearest town.
It was here, in February 1966, that Ted Hughes arrived with his married lover, Assia Wevill, and three children: Frieda and Nicholas, Hughes's children with Sylvia Plath, who had taken her own life in 1963; and Shura, his daughter with Wevill. It was a self-imposed exile – a chance for Hughes to write, and for he and Wevill to seek a level of domestic normality that had eluded them since they'd begun their affair four years before.
They would stay at Doonreagan for just a few months, but these would be some of their happiest together: Hughes began working on his acclaimed verse cycle Crow, while Wevill wrote and painted, and Frieda attended the village school. Decades later, Hughes would claim that his time in Ireland was one of the most productive periods of his writing life: not least because here, miles from London, he felt far from the corrosive gossip that had dogged him since Plath's death. Here, too, he and Wevill could live in privacy. Almost none of their friends and family knew she was here.
Now, their time at Doonreagan – or a version of it – is to be retold in a play written by the Swedish author, translator and playwright Ann Henning Jocelyn, which has its premiere next week at London's Jermyn Street theatre. It is a remarkable event for several reasons: because it sheds light on a period of Hughes's life about which, until recently, very little was known; and because Henning Jocelyn is, with her husband, Robert, the current owner of Doonreagan House. She has even shipped furniture to London for the set – including the desk, retained by Robert since he acquired the house in the late 1960s, shortly after Hughes and Wevill's departure – that Hughes may well have sat at to write.
Henning Jocelyn and her husband only discovered the Hughes connection in 2005, when they received some unexpected visitors. "We noticed this little hire car come up the drive," she tells me as we sit in the house's sunlit conservatory. "A couple came out and said they were writing a biography of an Israeli woman called Assia Wevill. They explained that she had been living here with Ted Hughes, and they had found the address of the house on letters written at the time. It was a complete surprise."
The couple in the car were Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, who published their groundbreaking biography of Wevill, A Lover of Unreason, in 2006. Intrigued, Henning Jocelyn began to delve deeper: she read everything she could about Hughes, Plath and Wevill, and interviewed the poet Richard Murphy and the painter Barrie Cooke, two of the few friends who had known both Hughes and Wevill were here; and Seamus Heaney, who also knew the couple. "Heaney said [Wevill] was very striking," she says. "She loved dancing, and she would challenge them a bit. The more I learned about Assia, the more I could identify with her. I had also been a young foreign lady in London – and it is not easy to have no family and no connections, and no friends to back you up."
At first, Henning Jocelyn was intending to turn her research into an academic lecture, aimed at Hughes scholars – but last year, with the characters still looming large in her mind, she decided to transform the material into a play. The result is a one-act piece, Doonreagan, in which we see Hughes and Wevill trying to establish a new intimacy while the shadow of Plath's death – and our own knowledge of the tragic fate awaiting Wevill and her daughter – looms large.
Some incidents are based on fact – Hughes's dreams about salmon and pike, which he recounted in his letters (and, obliquely, in his poetry); Wevill's own writing – she was an accomplished, if diffident, poet in her own right, and had abandoned a successful career as a copywriter for the move to Ireland.
But their conversations are the product of Henning Jocelyn's imagination. Her aim is to round out a picture of two people to whom so much negative rumour and supposition still cling – Hughes for the fact that two of the women closest to him committed suicide; Wevill for being a possible catalyst for Plath's death (Plath had found out about the affair a few months before she ended her life).
"People judge Ted," Henning Jocelyn explains, "based on what happened to him. There's a suggestion that the fate of these two women didn't really bother him at all – that he just said, 'Well, too bad, now where can I find my next girlfriend?' But I don't think it was like that at all. Hopefully the play will lead to a more nuanced understanding of him, and what he went through." Henning Jocelyn has been in contact with Hughes's daughter Frieda about the play, and says she has been encouraging about this approach.
Above all, though, Henning Jocelyn is intrigued by the fact that it was here, in this remote Irish house, that Hughes was able to reignite his creativity after some very dark years. She can understand how Doonreagan House came to have such a profound effect on him: she herself arrived in the summer of 1982 to write a book, and never left. "I had the sense," she says, "that I was coming home. Knowing that Hughes felt the same about this house has only reinforced it. Now, I'm even more aware of how lucky we are to be here."j