Saturday, 26 January 2013

Sappho in nine fragments

Second Skin theatre, 25 January 2013
The author, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, explains what Sappho is about.
Watch her, as she is much clearer than my review. From youtube.

This dramatic meditation on identity, filtered through a classicists appreciation of the great Sappho, is a triumph for everyone involved.

Yeats’ wry comments on scholars of Catullus, poring over the fiery love poets words, could be the best description of this drama on the poet who inspired Catullus to write about his muse Lesbia. A greater poet, perhaps, though so little of her survives now, and that which does has been patiently pieced together over centuries by the scholars. 

That those scholars recast the poet to fit their prejudices provides the humour and pathos of this monologue. The irony that without scholarship Sappho would not survive even to the extent she does is not lost on Jane Montgomery Griffiths, the author, herself a classical academic. 

We know that someone heard Sappho's voice on Lesbos, while nobody ever heard Orpheus sing. But almost everything else is conjecture, and she has become at least as mythical as Orpheus. I recently reviewed a fragmentary biography of the man; here is something similar, except on the stage, and rather better. 

The text is a marvel, poetic and punning, influenced by Joyce, whose Ulysses is now a classic model for modernising the classics. Here, Griffiths breaks up the Sappho soliloquy with a lesbian love story taking place in our society. 

Key fragments of the pioneering lyric poet are employed judiciously to link the two narratives, and the love story is essential grounding for the more necessarily more rhapsodic tour through what is doubtless called Sappho’s ‘reception’: how her image has changed over time. 

Everything we know about Sappho comes from men, some of them virulently homophobic men who grappled with a great poet who was clearly attracted to both women and men. The author doesn’t overstate this gendered aspect; she is subtle enough to merely note the irony. 

By reflecting the unreliable gossipy nature of our knowledge of Sappho onto the contemporary love story subplot, Griffiths may also be illustrating that our knowledge of anyone, even intimate partners, may be unreliable in a similar way as our knowledge of ancient Greek writers.  

However, success in this intimate venue, and with 70-minutes of nearly ceaseless talking, cannot be due to text alone. Victoria Grove’s performance, and the design team’s set, deserve a greater share of the credit in bringing the text to life. 

The deceptively simple set, all ropes and drapes, was used inventively by an acrobatic Grove, depicting the singer’s alleged death-plunge, or the role of her songs in marriage ceremonies. 

It wasn’t an acting performance from the inside, but then that isn’t what this fragmented Sappho requires. Grove’s external, rhetorical acting was appropriate and spellbinding.

Jessica Ruano’s direction was fine, though it would have benefited from a less frenetic pace. The monologue form can be exhausting for an audience; greater variety is ideally needed.

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