Isis Sadek studied Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Ottawa and Duke University in North Carolina. She is now an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina. She attended Sappho…in 9 fragments twice when it played in Ottawa, June 2013.
How to write about Jessica Ruano’s mise-en-scène and adaptation of Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ Sappho …in 9 fragments? How to write about it when what still echoes in my head is, even more than the stories it tells and weaves together, the interaction between the multiple elements that convey these plots, all brilliantly put into play by Ruano’s direction, Victoria Grove’s stirring and nuanced performance of all characters and Ana Inés Jabares Pita’s set design?
by SERAFIN LARIVIERE
For those of us comic geeks who grew up adoring a certain star-spangled amazon, this frequently uttered epitaph was our ﬁrst exposure to history’s most famous Greek lyric poet. But aside from Wonder Woman’s dubious endorsement, Sappho was much more than some vague deity in perpetual torment.
Born some 600 years before the (purported) birth of Christ, Sappho crafted thoughtful melodic poems about love and beauty that survive to this day in the form of fragmented papyrus scrolls and respectful mentions by other writers; even Roman lyric poet Horace was a fan. Her musings on the nature of passion continue to inspire other artists, and to many in the queer community, this woman from the island of Lesbos represents the quintessential lover of women. Her infatuated scribblings about other gals have inspired many of our Sapphic sisters, and she’s often characterized as the mother of lesbianism.
Canadian director Jessica Ruano’s knowledge of Sappho was limited to a few readings of assorted poems before she stumbled upon an interesting one-woman play by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. “I was in London looking for some ancient Greek plays for research when I found this script,” Ruano says.
“I had a very emotional response. I immediately started connecting it to various love affairs I’ve had. You can recognize yourself so easily in the writing.”
Griffiths’s play is taken largely from Sappho’s poetry; the playwright adapted her own translations of the Greek text into a narrative involving a love affair between the ancient muse and a young American chorus girl named Atthis. Sappho has taken on human ﬂesh and is posing as the leading lady in a play, catching the attention of the introverted chorus girl.
“I relate to Atthis a lot,” Ruano says. “She’s insecure a lot of the time, she doesn’t believe in herself, and she’s always in her head, rethinking and rethinking... But she’s not afraid of falling in love.”
And fall in love she does with the alluring and mercurial leading lady.
“Oh, Sappho is mad, she’s crazy, she’s wonderful,” Ruano says. “She’s so opinionated and very aware and political. But she’s also very emotional and occasionally emotionally violent. Sure she’s a bit of a diva, but she’s also prone to falling head over heels in love. It’s a ﬁctional portrayal, of course, as we
know so little about her.”
One of the director’s favourite scenes between the two is a romantic interlude that leaves Ruano quite weak in the knees. “It’s such a wonderful seduction
scene,” she says. “They’re in Atthis’s apartment, and it’s messy and freezing cold. [Sappho] suddenly tells her to go to the corner and take off all of her clothes. It’s that beautifully awkward moment where someone who is really in charge of their sexuality takes over.”
Actress Victoria Grove portrays both characters in the piece, which Ruano adapts speciﬁcally to each venue as the play tours across North America and
“What I wanted to do with this piece is use everything we have in the space,” Ruano says. “Let’s not make fixed features obstacles; let’s make them part of the play. It can change the audience’s perspective in powerful ways.”
SAPPHO . . . IN 9 FRAGMENTS, Fri, June 21–Sat, June 29, Arts Court Library, 2 Daly Ave, ottawafringe.com
Victoria Grove performing in Sappho…in 9 fragments. Photo: Robert Piwko
From directing to performing in plays, University of Ottawa students, staff, professors and alumni are involved in all facets of Ottawa’s Fringe Festival. The Fringe’s impartial selection process makes it an ideal place for experimental theatre…and whether the play succeeds is up to the audience. Among the many people involved in the Festival this year are alumni Jessica Ruano and Nancy Kenny, as well as Department of Theatre professor Kevin Orr, whose productions promise to give audiences a unique experience.
For London-based director Jessica Ruano, theatre is about creating an emotional impact through visual moments on stage. While shopping at a London bookstore, she discovered the play Sappho…in 9 fragments. Based on fragments of writings left behind by Greek poet Sappho, the play explores Sappho being erased from history as well as love between women. When actor Victoria Grove who plays Sappho suggested suspending herself on stage, Ruano, along with Spanish designer Ana Pita, set out to make that happen. “We looked at pictures of ropes, and Ana thought of spiders and came up with all this imagery,” says Ruano. The end result is a scaffolding structure and suspended ropes that serve as Sappho’s lair.
Brad Long and Emily Pearlman, writers and performers of We Glow. Photo: Kevin Orr
Through his company, Theatre 4.669, Kevin Orr showcases original creations from the Ottawa region. “I hope to continue to develop Ottawa as this incredibly unique artistic landscape that I think is still trying to find its own artistic voice,” says Orr.We Glowis a play that grew out of Orr’s summer creative labs, where he invites Ottawa theatre artists to the University to experiment with their craft. An original production by Brad Long and Emily Pearlman, the play examines what happens when two executives are thrown off the “life script,” or the intense expectations put on us by society to get a degree, get married, buy land, find a job, climb the ladder, etc. Orr finds his dual role as teacher and director has helped push him in new directions by bringing what he learns from working with professionals to the classroom and vice versa.
Martine Roquebrune and Nancy Kenny in a publicity photo for Dolores. Photo: Tania Levy
Writer, performer and producer Nancy Kenny will be debuting her French translation ofDolores, a story about a woman who seeks her sister’s help to escape an abusive husband. Translating the play began as an acting exercise in class when Kenny said the lines in French, her native language, to connect emotionally with the character. Set in the kitchen of St. Paul’s Eastern United Church, the play creates a realistic atmosphere for 15 audience members at a time. While some attendees will sit right in the kitchen with the performers, others will peer in through big serving windows to watch the play unfold. “I like shows that make me feel, as an audience member, like a fly on the wall. I’m there up close, peering in on these private lives,” says Kenny.
The Festival takes place from June 20 to 30, 2013. For more information on shows, times and purchasing tickets, visit the Fringe Festival website.
thetrendtube footage of a Live Q&A on May 26th following a performance of ‘Sappho …in 9 fragments’ at The Rose, Bankside, hosted by Jo Webber, featuring director Jessica Ruano and actor Victoria Grove. Focusing on the representation of women in theatre and aspects of this production that tours Canada and plays at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer.
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.
I shall be tossing in my sleep dreaming over it! It really was the most powerful female performance I have seen in a very long time. Her voice still rattles in my bones.
– review from an audience member who will be attending ‘SAPPHO …in 9 fragments’ for a second time next week