Sappho…in 9 fragments is a sensuous love letter to the poet Sappho, exploring her identity through the few fragments of her work which are left behind. The performance and staging is magnetic collaboration between actress Victoria Grove and Director Jessica Ruano not to be missed. At the Rose Theatre, Bankside.
The Rose Theatre is an archaeological site, where London’s first Bankside theatre was built in 1587. It’s strangely appropriate for this one woman play written by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. The echoes of history which reverberate through the barren building twist the fine thread Sappho treads between mythology and contemporary perceptions of the poet –teacher, mother, wife, lesbian, and so much more – by looking at how generations have labelled her and loved her. Sappho asks how her story can have ended, when it was lost?
The fragments the play’s title speaks of are the nine books of Sappho’s work that were lost, only partially accumulated in fragments; in fact only one poem of Sappho’s exists in its complete form.Sappho is about filling in the gaps, and whether we have the right to. The script does in fact quote from Six Fragments for Atthis by Sappho, which was assumedly inspiration for said character and a note of admiration from the playwright. Griffiths’ writing obviously takes a lot of influence from Sappho: daringly erotic lines which belong in the world of verse escape Sappho’s lips and dance around the set, lingering in the space and minds of the audience. Her script is sensuous enough to paint pictures where the sparse set cannot.
Victoria Grove is extraordinarily talented. She flips between playing Sappho’s many sides; and despite her surety, the sexually dominant way in which she exudes authority as a celebrity of her time, there is this schizophrenic frenzy in how she can travel the stage – hinting at her inability to define herself outside of the definitions she is given. Grove also plays Atthis, who narrates a much more chronological storyline between herself and a contemporary Sappho, a famous actress playing Phaedre. Atthis falls in love with her at her peril, tenderly discovering herself whilst Sappho remains lost. She is a symbol for the part Sappho’s work plays in modern day lives, particularly in the realm of lesbian literature and being comfortable with your sexuality.
Ana Ines Jabares’ set is a work of brilliance and transports Sappho from interesting to exciting. It’s quite simply an open cage, adorned with white sheets and ropes; like an adult climbing frame. It’s the most dexterous set I’ve ever seen, an absolute gift for Grove to play in. She literally swings from the set, reclines, and pulls gorgeous shapes which tell a story on an entirely different level. This set is used like a thrust stage, playing to three sides of the audience which Grove tries to balance, but it’s definitely a struggle with a solo performance. A little too often her back is facing the audience or, at the other end of the scale, she veers from side to side of the stage so often it’s dizzying and the narrative lacks focus.
There is the problem that without at least a little knowledge of Sappho, and I knew very little, that the play won’t prove satisfying to watch – as you’ll spend half of it working out what’s going on. The script itself doesn’t fill in the audience’s gaps, which is a problem in itself, but otherwise it’s an engaging play with electric performances and exciting staging from director Jessica Ruano. In the Rose Theatre space, it becomes something special.