If you haven’t studied classics or ancient Greek, it’s entirely possible you haven’t been introduced to Sappho before. However, she is one of the most famous – maybe even infamous – female authors, with her sexuality giving rise to the term lesbian. Its etymology stems from the Greek island of Lesbos, where Sappho spent much of her life.
One of the reasons why Sappho herself has not fared as well in the history books as her contemporaries is that much of her original writings have been destroyed. We know Sappho through only scraps of papyrus and depictions on pottery. Academic, actress and playwright Jane Montgomery Griffiths has responded to history’s failure to preserve Sappho’s talent with a fitting one-woman tribute.
It’s not always easy to keep up with Griffiths’ fast-paced script, particularly at the start. Although originally written for Griffiths to perform herself, here Victoria Grove plays both Sappho and her younger lover Atthis, in ancient Lesbos and in the present day. Grove switches between characters and time periods quickly, the fragmented nature of the writing echoing how Sappho’s own texts have been lost over time. The words are melodic, sensual and profound – even when it’s hard to follow, the rhythm of the piece will keep you drawn in.
Designer Ana Ines Jabares and aerial consultant Jani NightChild have come up with a wonderfully innovative set. A dozen metal bars are fused together to create a cuboid structure, with fabrics draped over it, evoking the image of a four-poster bed. When Grove later removes these swathes of material, this reveals the many ropes attached to the structure, creating an acrobat’s playground.
Over the course of the hour, Grove gives a masterclass in acting, acrobatics and dance, beautifully choreographed by director Jessica Ruano. As Grove navigates and manipulates the ropes and beams, her movements are perfectly fluid and evocative.
It may sound shallow, but Grove is a tremendously beautiful woman, with an athletic frame and supple body, all of which is necessary to do justice to the part, oozing sensuality. It is the beauty of Sappho’s writing as well as her supposed physical allure which has captivated scholars and audiences. In the dim lighting as Grove flits around the stage, the spotlight is on her, and like moths we are drawn to the flame.
Although Sappho… in 9 Fragments has already been on tour, and for that matter, has not yet finished travelling, it’s hard to imagine this show in any other venue. The setting of The Rose, part performance space, part partially-excavated and unexplored ancient theatre site, feels like a perfect match. The venue, like Sappho, has yielded some of its secrets, but there is still more we just don’t know.
The cast and crew of Tenth Muse Theatre have all worked very hard to make this show their own, rather than simply rehashing what Griffiths has done before. Sappho… in 9 Fragments may sound daunting for those unfamiliar with the poet, but it’s surprisingly accessible, as well as a deeply compelling and exciting production. This is a piece which reinforces the importance of fringe theatre.
Sappho… in 9 Fragments opened at the Rose on 21st May and runs until 2nd June 2013. It will then tour in Canada in June and transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2013.