As the poet Anne Carson points out, it was Sappho who first described eros as “bittersweet”. “No one who has been in love,” says Carson, “disputes her”. Desire is, after all, fraught with paradox: it is the zenith of human bliss, but its annihilating power destroys the illusion of human autonomy. As Sappho describes in her most famous fragment (here in Carson's translation), it can seem like dying:
...when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead - or almost
I seem to me.
After two and a half millennia, Sappho’s poems still speak across what would seem unbridgeable gaps of time and culture, expressing with a directness and delicacy that has rarely been matched the contradictions of “limb-loosening” desire. In her extraordinary performance Sappho…in 9 Fragments, actor/writer Jane Montgomery Griffiths takes on Sappho’s legacy, exploring the history of her texts and the various myths and conjectures that fill the absence of knowledge about her life. Lesbian, wife, mother, suicide, exile, tenth muse of the archaic Greek world: how can we hear her elusive voice, through the clamorous myths that cluster about her name?
Sappho...in 9 fragments is not so much a homage to Sappho as a reanimation of the body of her work (with an emphasis on "body") through a particular subjectivity. Most of all, it's a passionate engagement with the poetry itself, a multifaceted imaginative dance with Sappho’s work brought with painful intensity into the present moment. Montgomery Griffiths does a seemingly impossible thing, and makes theatre out of an act of understanding.
Reading, listening, watching, comprehension, become - both in our watching, as audience members, and in Montgomery Griffiths's performance - acts of love: the stroking of a page is also the stroking of skin. Before our eyes she enacts the creation of meaning, which is always a collaboration, a dynamic exchange, between the artist's work and those who encounter it. But it's an act fraught with peril, with the risk of annihilating damage and pain. Eros wakes an unassuagable longing, making us aware of our incompleteness, our existential solitude. As Atthis says in Fragment 8, recalling Plato:
"Once, we were whole. A smooth, round completeness of total happiness... But we did something wrong, and the gods punished us. We were split and sundered... and our two dismembered halves were left to wander. Looking for each other. Looking for that wholeness. But when we met again, the damage was too great....And when we embraced, all we felt was our hollowness. And so we parted. Resigned to live forever with our emptiness and our lack."
First performed at the Stork Hotel in 2007, this complex, moving and powerful work has been further developed by Malthouse Theatre under the direction of Marion Potts. I missed the first production, but was very glad to see this one. The writing is sharp, witty and passionate: Montgomery uses her own free translations of Sappho which, unlike the spare renderings of Carson or Diane Rayor, spiral in intensifying thickenings of linguistic desire that work surprisingly well in performance.
Anna Cordingley’s design, lit with Paul Jackson's usual sensitivity, is breathtakingly beautiful. The audience is placed on three sides, facing a tank that appears to be full of honey, which gradually empties onto the stage during the course of the monologue. Sappho’s naked body is gradually revealed inside the tank, at last emerging from this amber prison to a soundscape composed of fragments of Greek, the trickling of fluid and archaic percussion. It's a bold and hauntingly lovely opening to a riveting show.
Through the performance, Montgomery Griffiths embodies several things at once. She performs the poet herself, but also becomes her poems - there's a moment where she is the fragments of papyri which have lain underground for centuries, begging to be discovered, to be read again. There are skin-tingling recitations of the fragmented poems in the original Greek, which invite us into Sappho's exquisite musicality. Montgomery Griffiths explores, with various degrees of irony, their lexigraphical adventures through the centuries, and the invented biographies of Sappho that have rounded out the few historical facts, while also adding her own projected narrative.
Montgomery Griffith's Sappho is seductive and terrifying: a potent, desirous and desirable woman, as unforgiving and vulnerable as the art she creates. She and her avatars are in fluid dialogue with the voice of Sappho’s lover Atthis (“there can be no Sappho without an Atthis”), told through a contemporary story of seduction and betrayal. Sappho is figured through a famous actress playing that great victim of love's extremity, Phaedra, and a lowly chorus member who catches her eye. This sometimes painfully comic narrative twines through the other voices, enacting the passions - desire, love, jealousy, anguish, loss - of the poems.
Montgomery Griffiths’s performance is outstanding; like her wit and intellect, the virtuosity of her superb physical and vocal skills do not serve as masks so much as tools to excavate the unmediated rawness of feeling. She can be spiky, predatory, even bestial, and in the next moment expose a piercing vulnerability, walking a tightrope of extremity which, if she faltered, could tip her into bathos. But her assurance and, finally, her naked honesty, ensure there is not a trace of sentiment in her performance. Anyone who believes that passion and intelligence are opposites should see this show, where each crucially informs the other. Not to be missed.
Picture: Jane Montgomery Griffiths in Sappho...in 9 fragments. Photo: Jeff Busby
A shorter version of this review was published in the Australian last Friday
Sappho...in 9 fragments, written and performed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. Staging by Marion Potts, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design Darrin Verghagen. Malthouse Theatre @ The Beckett until August 21.