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Review: Sappho (Southwark Playhouse Elephant)

Review by Sam Waite




On the island of Lesbos, the lovely Lesbians all flock to hear the teachings of the great poet Sappho. True to her name, or technically the other way around, Sappho has fallen in love with a woman – not an issue for her strikingly progressive Ancient Greek surroundings, but a minor problem for her parents’ plans to use arranged marriage to bolster their societal powers. If the course of true love ran smooth, then Wendy Beckett’s new play wouldn’t have nearly as much to say!


Set in an imagined version of Lesbos circa 600 or so BC, Beckett’s Sappho finds its titular heroine teaching philosophy and poetry by day and dreaming up her own poetic creations by night – such as the night she spies Adore dancing outside her window and promptly falls in love. Her mother and stepfather, hoping an arranged marriage will put them in a position to introduce democracy to first Lesbos and then Greece as a whole, support her love but are quite insistent she not disrupt their schemes.

Presented through dance, song, and traditional scene-work, Sappho features a Greek chorus led by the too-invested narrator, played by a glorious Emmanuel Akwafo. When called upon to be outraged by the injustices against Sappho and Adore’s union, he is tender and emotive, and when presenting the story to the audience his boisterous energy and irrepressible spirit can be called only fabulous. Akwafo’s introduction of fiery diva Aphrodite, played by a magnificent, decadent Velile Tshabalala, the twosome’s energy threatens to overwhelm the Southwark Playhouse’s intimate Elephant space. Both, in fact, are immediately more compelling than the characters at the centre of the story.


That, I’m sorry to say, is where my biggest criticism of Beckett’s play comes into play. Georgie Fellows projects confidence and intellect as Sappho, and Eleanor Kane says more through Fotis Diamantopoulos than words ever could – however, neither character is granted the kind of depth that makes for a compelling protagonist. Thankfully, Diamantopoulos’ work is so fluid and captivating that Sappho’s falling for Adore is still easy to believe, but it’s a shame that the love we’re against to root for against all odds doesn’t have that much of a narrative drive behind it. Narrated as the piece is, everyone simply is who we are told they are in terms of personality, but I often felt others were given more ample opportunity to prove their descriptors.


Alongside the strong choreography and fluid movement work is the original music from Mehdi Bourayou, including a joyous finale with original lyrics by Beckett. The song, “Oh The Ladies” creates a genuine and supportive atmosphere, truly celebrating the Lesbians – of both kinds – dancing around the stage. The space is filled with oft-moved tables allowing for dimension and change of scenery to take place without the awkwardness of larger set pieces, while an abstraction of the sun and moon at one end allows the troupe to indicate the passage of time. The makeshift nature of the performance is also a great source of comedy, with the ensemble holding the stars aloft for a fateful meeting and visibly struggling to keep the nighttime romance in the air… literally.


Co-directed by Beckett and Adam Fitzgerald, there is a breeziness to the work that helps sell the story. Everything is very tongue in cheek, but without detracting from the impact of more emotional scenes – and yes, some references do fall flat, like Sappho’s family coming from the small town of “Rwandox” and being threatened with deportation there (a tad too soon, perhaps?) but for the most part the ever-moving, constantly-energised company keeps things moving along nicely.


Like its protagonist, Sappho is charming and easy to enjoy if somewhat lacking in development. With a light touch and a willingness to have fun with the intersection of history and mythology, there’s certainly much more to recommend than to raise questions about, and the sheer joy and unabashed queerness of the evening is certainly crowd-pleasing. Even more like Sappho herself is the tone – fun, flirty, but not without intellect, and certainly worth a short while in its company.


Sapphos plays at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until May 25th



Photos by Mark Senior



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