I think I fancy a lesbian from the 7th century BC. If she was anything like this shapely seductress swinging from a scaffold, then I definitely would. And don’t think me inappropriate for saying so – the character in question, the queen of erotic poetry herself, would completely approve of my primitive response, although she may have expressed it more eloquently, in two hendecasyllabic verses followed by an adonean line.
I’m sorry. I’ll return to the leading lady in a bit. She embodies the enigma of Sappho in Jane Montgomery Griffiths’s indulgent reverie on the Greek poet’s life and work. The “9 Fragments” of the title refer to the frustrating incompleteness of Sappho’s extant work, comprised almost entirely of phrases cited in other ancient texts, despite her reputation in antiquity as one of the true greats. History has been a bit self-serving with Sappho since Byzantine scholars culled the majority of her work from the curriculum on the grounds of her archaic idiom. A line from the play has Sappho pegged variously as “rampant hetero, raging queer, top, bottom, butch, femme, lesbian pin-up, Christian tear-up, Romans’ reference, Egyptian’s refuse…,” not to mention “empty vessel” and “imaginative void.” It seems that the poet once described by Plato as “the tenth muse” has often become what each successive society feels comfortable with her being, as opposed to what she actually may have been. At least they’ve wanted her to be at all, I suppose, and therein lies the continued fascination.
Griffiths’s text takes a sideways glance at the work of Sappho by filtering English translations of surviving poetic fragments through an impressionistic lens, and weaving the words around an imaginative story of a contemporary lesbian love affair between Sappho the modern-day theatrical grande dame and Atthis the innocent American chorus-girl who catches her eye.
It’s one of those full-bodied experiences that, at certain moments, can utterly sweep you away. In a tiny evocative cavern beneath the floorboards, made effervescent by Ana Ines Jabares’s stylish set design, Sarah Crocker’s inventive lighting and Luca Romagnoli’s unobtrusive soundscape, it’s entirely possible to forget where you are and be transported to a timeless no-man’s-land. Jessica Ruano’s direction focuses so keenly on the physical, that it’s as much a piece of choreography as a text; I believe Sappho, a great proponent of both the direct and the sensual in poetry, would unreservedly approve. No part of the space is not explored, no shape of the body not attempted.
Thankfully, it’s also far from heavy on the subject of the female experience. A monologue about a woman, written by a woman, directed by a woman and performed by a woman is feminine by definition, if not explicitly feminist, but the text, performance and direction are all more concerned with Sappho as a writer and lover, regardless of her gender. The openness with which the Greeks enjoyed same-sex intimacy renders modern conceptions of sexuality and gender almost embarrassing, and Ruano’s direction of the text only allows more strident male-female antagonism to become a subtext once the narrative approaches the modern day, with Sappho sardonically bending over and affecting sexual positions while second-guessing male commentators’ narrow views of her personality.
Finally, to the performer inhabiting the work, Victoria Grove, who is surely some kind of professional enchantress, with the husky voice of a Dench or a Bacall and the poise of a young Vanessa Redgrave. Her characterisation of Sappho is simultaneously haughty and earthy; imagine Penelope Keith’s voice in Felicity Kendal’s body. She succeeds admirably with the schizophrenic qualities of the piece, too. Her gauche Atthis, writhing with embarrassment at being asked to disrobe, is very funny indeed. Owing to her considerable physical and vocal attributes, the piece is uncommonly exhilarating. Not to mention the fact that she’s gorgeous.