Wednesday 16th January 2013 to February 3rd 2013.
The White Rabbit Theatre, 125 Stoke Newington Church St, London N16 0UH
Web site http://secondskintheatre.com/pages/productions/sappho-in-9-fragments
Fluently and fluidly directed by Jessica Ruano of Second Skin theatre, this is a stunningly athletic and entirely sensuous one woman performance by Victoria Grove; she plays not only Sappho, but all the other voices and characters in the play. Ana Ines Jabares has created a rather impressive stage set of a spider web lattice of ropes and scaffolding to suggest Sappho is at once always constrained by myths and by the way she has been read and presented by others and perhaps elusively forever out of reach to those who would know her. An intangible personality of whom little survives but fragments of poems, and yet is capable of sublimely transcending these limitations just likes the ropes and bars of the set. The same set also helps to add a powerful sense of sexuality to Grove’s lithe and acrobatic, twirling performance and together with an evocative sound set from Luca Romagnoli does much to bring the performance an important visceral immediacy.
However, the star of the production is certainly Grove with her voice at once sepulchral in its smoky-jazz tones and her lithe, supple ability to wind her way around the set, constantly moving from position to position, wrapping herself round ropes and bars to create drama in the performance. The fact that six foot tall Grove looks much like an ancient Greek goddess with her long brown tresses, bare foot in a blue-grey, attic gown only aids the piercing intelligence which she brings to the words she has to speak. Few actors could manage to portray at once a character who is feisty, haughty, enigmatic and function as an object of desire– this desire isn’t always about sexuality so much, as for the truth which people have always desired – to know who the real Sappho is. It is this hermeneutic problem which the play above all oscillates around.
Figures 1-4. Victoria Grove as Sappho. All pictures are by Jessica Ruano.
I was less enamoured of Jane Montgomery Griffiths' pseudo-biographical script than I was of the qualities of Second Skin’s production. It was certainly fragmentary and I think is was rather hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with Sappho’s work. The trope that Sappho the ghost was being embodied by this production, in a way she hadn’t been before was just that - a familiar theatrical trope - we know as little of Sappho’s life now as we have for the past few millennia. We do not know if her lyrics should even be read autobiographically – after all the ‘I’ in a lyric is not necessarily autobiographical in the Renaissance and afterwards – we just do not know its status within Sappho’s ancient Greek literary culture.
This conjured up figure of Sappho we see in the play seems to protest frequently at the way others through history have attempted to fill ‘her gap’, ‘ her absence’, with interpretation of various kinds via Montgomery Griffiths’ script. This seems rather disingenuous as that is exactly what this production itself is doing in reading Sappho as a very contemporary kind of sexy lesbian figure and which often over-interprets or sometimes deliberately fails to explain the few known facts to make a more acceptable, dramatic and contemporary ‘feminist’ story. Sappho can never tell her real story any more than Shakespeare or so many other famous writers can – it will always be invented by others of which Jane Montgomery Griffiths is in the final analysis, just another interpreter fighting for her place in the sun. One thing the play doesn’t achieve is making us feel though is that we are in ancient Greece with an ancient Greek; as say Annabel Lyon’s novels The Golden Mean or The Sweet Girl achieve so memorably.
Sappho’s ‘neglect’ in the ancient world after her death in c. 570 BCE was no conspiracy, but simply because like others she wrote in Aeolic Greek, a very different form of the language than that which developed and became dominant. She became read largely in translation subsequently, except by expert scholars and dropped off the classical syllabus for the Byzantines. As any poet knows the original language of composition matters for poetry: what will Shakespeare becomes when only a few specialist scholars can read his work in his original English? How many British people today really appreciate Chaucer's fine poetry, let alone that of the Anglo-Saxons? The burning of the great library of Alexandria was an immeasurable cultural cataclysm of the ancient world, but Sappho was hardly alone in its consequences and by that time her manuscripts were already copied much less than they had been. Of the nine great lyric poets of ancient Greece esteemed by the Alexandrians, the situation of Sappho’s texts is sadly like that of the vast majority; only Pindar’s work really survived that fiery apocalypse, by luck rather than design.
A few other things also irritated me about the script and particularly the decision to interpolate a new, contemporary fiction. This was a Jeanette Winterson style account of a contemporary, obsessive love / coming out story of rather masochistic desire between a young actress called Atthis (named after Sappho’s lover mentioned in the surviving fragments), and an older, successful woman called Sappho. I think a play based on how women have read and used Sappho would be fascinating, but here it felt like an attempt to construct what loving the real Sappho was like for the audience: otherwise why would the ghost of Sappho draw it to our attention? Montgomery Griffiths created a figure here who was aloof, cool, wealthy, narcissistic, aristocratic, beautiful and somewhat emotionally sadistic - if only an actress, hardly a great literary figure like Sappho– and the play seemed to imply this was what the real Sappho was like. However, this is just an interpretation based on the writer’s imagination rather than anything else, and one that the ancient Greeks would I think have found unrecognisable, so different is our culture from theirs, most especially as regards ‘homosexuality’, a concept as Foucault among others have noted, that they would have struggled to understand.
I was left somewhat unsettled after this reinterpretation of Sappho because of these elements, despite Victoria Grove’s exhilarating, powerful and immensely physical central performance. Sappho now seemed a smaller figure, more ordinary and of a more contemporary sensibility. However, was she really as good a poet as the ancient world and others subsequent believed her to be? Turning at home to Anne Carson’s spare, glowing translation in If Not, Winter: Fragments Of Sappho, however, I was relieved to find myself once again impressed by the fragments of Sappho that have survived. Canadian Carson is both a classicist and poet of considerable note and she manages to convey the sheer quality of Sappho’s poetry in a way that the play can’t achieve, partly because it is lost in its own desire to remake Sappho. Montgomery Griffiths aim of ‘embodiment’ is really just another fancy word for a stage biography; no different say from Simon Callow’s recreation of Dickens, where there is an infinitely larger amount of reliable biographical material to go on than for Sappho. Pace Grove’s brilliant performance, we really learn more about the interpreter’s interests here, than we do about Sappho, just as we have in other period’s attempts to recreate the poet.
But above all, let’s remember that Sappho has always been considered a great lyric poet by other great poets and commentators. It seems more than a little sad that we seem to need to turn her into a contemporary figure by creating a new, more fulsome pseudo-biography for her than previous generations managed with, in order to ensure that her words still shine with their ancient radiance and luminosity.