This extraordinary one-woman play is an homage to Sappho, the ancient Greek lesbian love poet whose work – and legacy – has echoed through the centuries. It’s a sensuous, richly textured play, a passionate engagement with the poetry and an intelligent, thoughtful exploration of Sappho’s life and its many interpretations, mirrored by a contemporary love story.
As Sappho relives her uses and abuses through history, in the modern world a heart-broken young woman tries to piece together the fragments of her sexual awakening. Jane Montgomery Griffiths takes the figure of Atthis, a lover Sappho alludes to in a single line of poetry, to provide a narrative structure.
Steeped in the original poetry, seamlessly woven into the script, this is a thrilling sensual and intellectual experience of Sappho’s life, work and legacy and how it continues to resonate.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths has combined a career in academic teaching with professional theatre practice, as an actor, director and playwright. She has performed extensively in the UK theatre and has recently performed with the Bell Shakespeare Company in King Lear and The Stork Theatre in Razing Hypatia, as well as in Sappho … in 9 Fragments for Malthouse Theatre.
As a director, she has worked with Harrogate Theatre, UpFront Theatre Company and has been artistic director of the Cambridge Greek Play, directing acclaimed productions of Trojan Women and Electra. She has held various positions in Classical Studies and Drama departments in universities in the UK and Australia, and is currently senior lecturer and ARC Research Fellow in the Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies at Monash University.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ ambitious portrait of the Greek poet Sappho is page-turningly rhythmic and gorgeously lyrical; a seamless exploration of identity, creativity and desire. The prose is clever, poetic, musical and seductive; a joy to read. Simultaneously it is innately theatrical, blurring geography, history and personality as the contemporary Sappho rails against the portrayal of her multiple personae in the centuries since she lived. Beautifully and passionately written, these perfectly-layered vignettes combine history lesson and contemporary love story into a cohesive, fascinating whole.
Sappho, the ancient Greek lyric poet of love, is the subject of this tantalising play. Only a handful of details are known of her existence and they are cleverly woven into the script. She was born on Lesbos around 615 BCE, was lesbian and had a daughter known as Cleis. She was thought to have died when she threw herself off a cliff because of a broken heart. Of her nine volumes of poetry, only fragments survive – thus the nine fragments of the title.
The scene opens encompassed by the oppressive atmosphere of a “pseudo-reverential stillness of the rare books room in a great university library”. A naked woman under glass and covered in honey is trying painfully to speak. Her utterances are in Greek and are expressions of suffering – she is timeless.
This is a pretty intriguing opening that draws the reader or audience immediately into the story. It is a reminiscence of love. One actress plays two parts: the second character is Atthis, aged in her twenties. The two bounce ideas off each other, ideas of longing, love and of acting, all the while bringing the fragments together. “Never prod a pebble on the beach…who knows what you may find,” repeats Sappho.
This play is an unravelling of what may have happened to Sappho in the past, filling the gaps, while linking the story to a contemporary sexual awakening.
This review is by Rosemary Pullan of Carnegie Library/Glen Eira Library & Information Service
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