Sappho Unravelling by Jane Montgomery Griffiths (Stork Theatre)
Sappho Unravelling, written and performed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. The Stork Hotel, 504 Elizabeth Street Melbourne, November 2007.
"Believe me," wrote Sappho of Lesbos, "in the future someone will remember us... because you love me."
How right you can be!
Despite the fact than only fragments survive from the nine volumes of verse she was said to have written, Sappho's fame -- her infamy -- has lasted more than 25 centuries.
Sappho by Charles August Mengin, 1877
(Manchester Art Gallery collection)
Aside from the fact that her poems are all about love, we know next to nothing about Sappho's life. The stories about her, stories made up centuries after her death, are many and varied. And totally contradictory.
Lesbian, wife and mother, exile... a woman who supposedly committed suicide for a lowly boatman. The stories are more fantasy than fact. Some of the stories even suggest that Sapphie wasn't a 'ho at all!
As many translators have had a crack at turning her Greek into English as historians have in telling the story of her life. So the moon, in fragment 3, is variously 'fair', 'beauteous', 'lovely', 'refulgent' or -- in Tennyson's translation -- just plain 'beautiful'.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths's one-woman show Sappho Unravelling is a double helix. One thread is devoted to Sappho herself as she rummages through the stories that have been written about her since her death.
The other thread presents a brilliant modernisation of Sappho's poem about Atthis. Here, a lowly actress -- a member of the chorus -- falls for the lead in the cast of Phaedra. They have a short-lived and tragically one-sided affair.
The first thread is frisky and brilliantly clever, full of erotic puns and wordplay. Really filthy puns, I've gotta say! But the scenes between the two women touch us in a way that is more theatrical, touching and satisfying.
Writer/performer Jane Montgomery Griffiths neatly demonstrates that the only way we can learn about Sappho herself is through her poetry. Through her fresh, shatteringly authentic and eternal verse.
This review was published in the Herald Sun on November 21, 2007.