Tuesday 21 May 2024

Theatre review: Sappho

Not much is known about Sappho, the ancient Greek poet from Lesbos, except for the fact that what little survives of her work often consists of romantic verse about other women - hence her inspiring both the terms "sapphic" and "lesbian." So Wendy Beckett has carte blanche to create her for her play Sappho, which imagines her falling for a woman while trying to get out of an arranged marriage to a young boy. Why, then, she's chosen to make her such a wet blanket who barely seems to register in her own play until the end is a mystery. Sappho (Georgie Fellows) has an adoring coterie of young women who love her poetry, but she's only interested in Adore (Eleanor Kane.)

Meanwhile Sappho's parents (Jumoké Fashola and Fanos Xenofos) are enthusiastic supporters of the new concept of democracy; they're less big fans of this ostracising them from Lesbian society, so they've arrange a marriage for their daughter to the son of a prominent family to restore their fortunes.

Sappho is too busy saying she doesn't like boys to actually look at her new fiancé, and register the fact that he's actually very obviously Adore in disguise, so she spends the play trying to get out of marrying him/her. The script weaves in poetry and quotes from various ancient Greek philosophers - although "weave" suggests these moments are in some way integrated, it actually felt like no two consecutive lines of dialogue actually followed on from each other. It leaves the cast struggling to make their lines make sense, in a show that generally left me cringing.

So much of Sappho feels cobbled together: The intention seems to be to make the show a celebration of all kinds of queer love. But Beckett and Adam Fitzgerald's production fudges the attempts at camp - chucking the odd "yaaaassss!" into the Narrator's dialogue isn't enough - so you get actors giving awkwardly hammy performances out of context. Pavlos Thanopoulos' costumes aim for the ancient Greek tunic look, something that very rarely looks like anything other than am-dram - this may be part of why the attempts at sexiness also feel so awkward.

The exception to the period costumes is the Narrator himself (Emmanuel Akwafo,) who hobbles around the stage in heels, rarely actually narrating, mostly commenting. interjecting and emotionally responding. I would have said he was meant to be more like a Greek Chorus, except for the fact that there is an actual Chorus, who don't actually do much. At least Mehdi Bourayou's original music is mostly effective and atmospheric. But I'm afraid for me this was one of those incredibly awkward evenings where you just feel horrible embarrassed on behalf of everyone involved.

Sappho by Wendy Beckett is booking until the 25th of May at Southwark Playhouse Elephant.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Mark Senior.

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