Stuart King

Review: SAPPHO at Southwark Playhouse

Of the estimated 10,000 verses penned by Ancient Greek writer Sappho, perhaps as few as 650 are known to exist, the remainder having largely been erased from history by precisely the people and institutions which her glorious words about motherhood, sensuality, virginity and domestic life, alienated.

Georgie Fellows and company in Sappho at Southwark Playhouse. Credit Mark SeniorGeorgie Fellows and company in Sappho at Southwark Playhouse. Credit Mark Senior

It was always going to be an uphill struggle. Erotic lesbian imagery however beautiful, was a direct challenge to the established order, and particularly the teachings of the patriarchal churches, which had a vested interest in perpetuating heterosexual marriage as the basis for societal structure and ensuring women remained occupied and silent. Thankfully, due mainly to some remarkable efforts during the Renaissance, Sappho’s name has endured, along with at least some of her work, to give us a strong flavour of the style and subjects which informed her output.

So what would she make of the rather curious exploration of her life and times which has just opened at Southwark Playhouse Elephant? Wendy Beckett’s play, entitled simply SAPPHO, is a fairly unstylish amalgamation of facts cobbled together from basic research of the period in which the lesbian icon lived, blended unconvincingly and repetitively into a narrative which essentially outlines existing societal structure, proposals to move to something more democratic, with the invested parties in each opposing argument, being represented by two families seemingly uniting for the sake of the island’s inhabitants but not the young couple being married.

Lacking the crisp wit found elsewhere, the dialogue is often shouted for effect and an already busy stage is rendered more confused by the propensity of the young cast to mug, and imbue excess energy where it is not required in a bid to be noticed (which in the case of this production, may not prove the wisest of moves). Georgie Fellows as the headstrong and determined title heroine tries her damnedest to keep the plot heading forward, but the writing suffers from a tendency to make characters explain and argue the same ideas and topics repeatedly, followed by a small dance interlude. The result gives the impression that the Greeks weren’t nearly as bright as history has painted them. Quite what paying patrons make of the well-intentioned but muddled onstage homage to the classics poetess, remains to be seen.