Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess who is the subject of this one-woman show, is remarkable as much for what we don't know about her as what we do. Given the potential left wide open by the lack of any definitive Sappho story, it is a shame playwright and academic Jane Montgomery Griffiths came up with this.
All guff and thunder, the play is a mess of reference, ellipsis and scholarly self-satisfaction. Attempts to intertwine abstract monolouging with a sketchy modern love/coming-out story are ill-managed and stretch the performance too thin (not to mention too long). The performance space beneath Stoke Newington's heady White Rabbit cocktail bar was intimate and atmospheric, but when faced with poor material this can only do so much. Without a BA in Classical Literature, much of the play's erratic exposition will mean little. While it's easy to see why Griffiths might want to present Sappho, a famously fragmentary figure, through the medium of fragmented prose, it serves little purpose beyond rewarding the classically educated with a glow of smuggery and hiding any meaning from the rest.
Victoria Grove as Sappho (and anybody else the script calls for her to be) makes the best of a bad lot, whirling, lunging climbing and drooping her away around a set formed by metal bars and a web of rope and bedsheets (an inventive creation for which we have Ana Ines Jabares to thank). Grove's husky, smoke-laden voice for Sappho contrasts neatly with the airier tones adopted for other characters, particularly Atthis, elfin object of her desire. Her description, as Atthis, of her first sexual experience with a woman was an erotic and intense high water mark in the evening. As such, it is a mite disappointing that the story of a character tied up inextricably with love and passion is otherwise very unsexy, more concerned with cunning linguists than, well, you get the idea.
While five minutes of Sappho in Nine Fragments would be (and indeed was) atmospheric and entertaining, over an hour of it grates without a narrative to take it anywhere. While the play paints a convincing picture of one of the ancient world's most mysterious and alluring figures, the work itself lacks two of her most evident virutes: concision and universality. Without these, while diverting, it fails to truly compel.