They say that behind every great man stands a woman of equal or even more importance. The underappreciated female in question is most commonly the man’s wife, but in the case of famous poet William Wordsworth, it appears to have been his sister Dorothy. Now universally credited with providing significant influence and input into his work, in this new play Dorothy is painted not only as the unsung hero in terms of literary attentions, but also with regard to her brother’s personal affections.
Written by Jane Sunderland, The Lament of Dorothy Wordsworth looks at how Dorothy’s idyllic lifestyle with her brother is thrown into disarray when William falls in love with her best friend Mary Hutchinson and invites new his wife to live with the siblings in the Lake District. Having believed that the pair of them would live out the rest of their days unmolested by the rest of the world, Dorothy is distraught and must decide whether to begrudgingly accept the new changes or countenance a life without her “beloved”.
The play takes the form of a solo show comprising an extended monologue, in which Gillian Massey shoulders the role of Dorothy and the considerable burden of holding the audience’s attention alone for 50 minutes with no pause. Her performance is thoughtful and emotional, but the character’s misty-eyed recollections of a nostalgic past and her subsequent despair at her perceived abandonment are a little too one-tone for the audience to really engage with her. The result is that it always feels as if we are watching a performance onstage, rather than a real person confessing their feelings.
That may be more of a criticism of the writing rather than the acting, however. While Dorothy’s lengthy speech is well-written, believable and uses some neat artistic flourishes (the visual representation of the love triangle via the use of snowdrops is particularly effective), it concentrates almost exclusively on her own marginalisation at the hands of Mary. At the end of the day, the whole crux of the play hinges upon the somewhat humdrum conflict of a sister not realising that her brother might harbour romantic intentions towards another and failing to deal with the falling penny when it does drop.
Juicier topics such as the possibly incestuous relationship Dorothy shared with her brother and his appropriation of her writing talents are hinted at but brushed over; a more compelling piece might have devoted greater attention to these insalubrious details. Nonetheless, it remains an entertaining and mildly thought-provoking play which raises awareness about one of literature’s forgotten women. It just feels like if driven in another direction, it could have provoked far more.