Jane Montgomery Griffiths’s extraordinary one-woman play brings the ancient Greek poetess Sappho to life in order to ponder her existence. It’s part literary history, with Sappho complaining about the abuses she’s suffered under the Romans, the French Revolution female literary salon which revered her as a heroine and her use in pornography, and part love story, focusing on the romance between Sappho and Atthis which is alluded to in various fragments of her poems. Griffiths interweaves Sappho’s anger at her current fragmentary nature, thanks to the passage of time and deliberate destruction of her manuscripts, and her apparently fickle treatment of her lover, whom she passionately loves but eventually leaves.
Director Jessica Ruano’s production is set, quite perfectly, in an atmospheric underground space beneath the eccentric White Rabbit cocktail bar, where the impressively athletic Victoria Grove acrobatically vaults around the climbing-frame set, making full use of the intimate space. Her rope-entangled body probes the space between raw unbound feminine power and the tortured paralysis of lost love. It’s here that she shows herself to be perfect for the part, as she skilfully slips between the dominating Sappho and the submissive Atthis.
Grove begins concealed within a screened-off cage, reminiscent of attempts throughout history to put Sappho in one box or another and of disturbing torture sessions, where she supplicates Aphrodite in husky, desperate ancient Greek. It’s an incredibly powerful opening, immediately situating us in the poet’s passionate, unknowable world, broken only by her unavoidable and discomforting gaze confronting the audience.
The narrative of the love between Sappho and Atthis develops through fragmented monologues between herself and her imagined lover, interspersed with reflective musings or powerful outbursts. There’s imaginative use here of the space and set; Atthis excitedly greets Sappho at the cellar’s door, whilst a more reflective vignette takes place in an alcove retreat. The ropes adorning the cage are smartly used both to bind Sappho, and to elevate her to heights of feminine prowess and pleasure.
Jessica Ruano’s exciting new production wonderfully brings to life this elusive yet enigmatic figure. Sappho aficionados will get more out of it, but although some of the references are a little specific, there’s plenty here for the uninitiated too. The whole affair is both intellectually stimulating and intensely compelling, and makes for thrilling viewing. Its well worth the effort braving the cold to see this finely crafted piece.
Sappho in Nine Fragments is at White Rabbit in Stoke Newington until 27 January. For more information visit the Second Skin Theatre website.