WHEN the library of Alexandria was burned, one of the many great losses was nine volumes from the ancient Greek lyric poet, Sappho (circa 612-570 BCE).
Only a few tantalising fragments of her work survived. Little is known about her life. She was born on the island of Lesbos and, at some time, was exiled from it. In the 19th century, her name and her birthplace became descriptors of female homosexuality.
This new work, staged in a pop-up amphitheatre in Civic Square, with stylish and minimal production design, creates a space for the ancient and the contemporary to co-exist. “SAPPHO in 9 fragments” is a one-woman show in which performer, Mary Helen Sassman, plays multiple characters that span thousands of years.
Writer Jane Montgomery Griffiths has created a wry, balanced and well-researched work. She challenges the male gaze of Western scholarly discourse. Sappho is continually reconstructed to reflect the varying values of translators, commentators, and their own cultural norms. Throughout the piece Griffiths weaves a contemporary lesbian love story that takes its inspiration from a fragment of Sappho’s poetry: “Once long ago I loved you, Atthis, A little graceless child you seemed to me.”
This is a complex, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying work that would lend itself to many and varied treatments. The show gains momentum as the tone and physicality become more varied and interesting. Sassman carries her multi-faceted role with poise, humour, tight timing and great physical skill.