Theatre review: Sappho…in 9 fragments

SapphoStepping off the St. Kilda Road tram at Southbank Boulevard for a short walk to the Malthouse Theatre on a sunny Melbourne winter’s afternoon is a very lovely thing to do.

It’s true that Melbourne’s independent arts scene is eclectic, marvellous, under-funded and perpetually under threat.

Nevertheless, trundling past the Art Gallery and the Arts Centre in the tram and a stroll past the Melbourne Recital Centre makes one feel one lives in a city of culture where the arts (of a certain persuasion) are treasured and well funded – as all arts might be. The sun is shining, so one tries not to think about it too much or let the hackneyed repetition of the ‘big shows’ get one down.

Meeting a friend for a taste of something delicious in the foyer of the Malthouse is also an exceedingly pleasant pastime. My friend on this occasion is no less than writer and storyteller Julie Perrin. We are excited. We have both heard actor, writer and academic Jane Montgomery Griffiths talking about Sappho…in 9 fragments on the radio (me: RRR; Julie: ABC). Jane’s voice is intoxicating; the premise intriguing : Fragmented Sappho, ancient poetess, etc., from the Island of Lesbos, rises from the grave to point the finger at history.

The Beckett Theatre is woody and red, the space for this show organised ‘three-quarters in the round’ with a large oblong glass ‘casket’ of what seems to be bloody water. A tap pouring out the water (pouring out Sappho’s soul? My soul? The collective unconscious soul?) creates a mood of delicate, intense dreaminess. A moaning, a longing. The atmosphere thickens with anticipation and I realise it’s Sappho, in the water, under the sea of ages or deep in the unconscious, calling to the Gods. The poetry in Ancient Greek is heart-stopping. The doubt, pain and uncertainty of love. I’m enthralled: this is going to be good.

When a brilliant artist such as Jane Montgomery Griffiths gives an 80-minute one-woman performance everything, it seems churlish to report anything but ‘Bravo!’

The writing is passionate, intelligent and witty. It drips with sarcasm, pounds us with anger. Dry, bold and intense, Jane Montgomery Griffiths pulls no punches as a performer and works her audience well – no one is left out, we all fall within the range of her hurricane. Her voice is extraordinary, and so strong. She never wavers. Never misses a beat.

Nevertheless, as much as I loved much about Sappho… in 9 fragments, at times, it felt like a diatribe. A little more light of Sappho and a little more quiet of Sappho, more echoes from the dark of Sappho would have let us in, made her vulnerable and that would have made we the audience vulnerable and then we could have felt everything, including Sappho’s fragmented heart, her words of power across the ages.

And there was much to feel.

Dare I say it? I felt Sappho…in 9 fragments needed a good edit. The ‘love story’ of the ingénue and the older, ruthless actress did not, in my opinion (or Julie’s), add to the piece – rather, it made it long and brought a ‘soap opera’ feel. I would have been happy to just experience Sappho and her historians – Sappho on the cliff’s edge.

Go and see for yourself. It’s an experience well worth making up your mind about, and listening to Jane speak Sappho speak to the Gods in Greek is pure heartbreaking pleasure.

Sappho…in 9 fragments is playing until 21 August 2010 at the Beckett Theatre at the Malthouse, Melbourne.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thank you for writing this critical review Clare.

    I agree with you that the tirade was very strong and perhaps lacked being balanced with more expressions of finer feelings… It was very meaty and I for one would have enjoyed a good serving of sauce all over that Sapphic Feast!

    Nevertheless, I loved the intensity of the journey Jane took us on, feel glad I was there and send all my love to Sappho.

  2. Clare,

    Great review, I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to see the performance for myself. You do remind though of how beautiful our city is, wrapped in its winter light. So much promise and cultural diversity bursting to be heard, seen and experienced despite the mountain of obstacles faced. If nothing else the energy and passion to perform and get it out there is inspiring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *