EVENT REVIEW: Clare Pollard: Ovid’s Heroines

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Sunday 11 October
Palace Green Library

Review by Rachel Patterson

Old voices become new in Clare Pollard’s live poetry performance Ovid’s Heroines while still retaining their classical flavour. This is partly because of the interplay between starkness and subtlety in Pollard’s translation, but also because of her powerful stage presence and chameleon-like talent for acting. On stage I didn’t see “Clare Pollard the Poet” rather it felt like I was looking into the eyes of the vengeful Medea as she raged at Jason; acting as a secret interloper on Phaedra’s illicit letter to her step son; and sitting beside Penelope as she writes to the absent Ulysses. Texts and characters who seemed so far away unfurled and became intimate during the hour.

Part of this praise must go to the director Phoebe Stout and the lighting and sound designer John Castle. Modern music by female artists such as Joni Mitchell and Lana Del Ray punctuated the gaps between the poems. This invited the audience to make the link between the confessional nature of classical monologues and the yearning lyrics of these modern artists. It was a genius decision by the director. The lighting design was also wonderfully subtle, during some pieces soft blue, wave-like lights were projected on the gauze hanging from the back of the stage. This served to highlight how a lot of the women featured were abandoned on islands, but also acted as a visual representation of the gulf, sometimes physical, sometimes psychological, between the women and the men they are writing to.

The sheer range of emotions throughout the night also added to the enjoyment of the evening. ‘Sappho to Phaon’ was tinged with a subtle longing of a lover lost. ‘Deianira to Hercules’ starts of as bitterly chastising with undertones of humour, but then takes a strikingly dark turn towards the end which hits hard in our era of celebrity obsession. Some lines sound like they come directly from tabloid headlines. ‘Medea to Jason’ is steeped in pent up rage and betrayal, ‘Hypsipyle to Jason’ handles betrayal by a lover with a more subtle touch that is equally as painful. Oenone to Paris is more sassy, feeling like a letter from a jilted teenager to her lover and is very endearing for it. It is testament to Pollard’s stage presence and acting talent that the whole evening felt so unified even with the multitude of voices and emotions present.

The standout poem of the night for me was ‘Penelope to Ulysses.’ From the first lines which contain so much hidden emotion ‘Dear Ulysses / you’re late’ it grabbed my attention and never let go. Pollard’s performance encapsulated Penelope’s vulnerability and quiet strength but most strikingly the deep love she feels for her absent husband. It also contains poignant questions about the cost of conflict from a female perspective, far away from the glory of victory in Troy. The whole poem was a complex exploration of the insignificance of victory from her individual perspective; all she wants is her husband to return home. This, paired with Pollard’s subtle performance, gave a more human view of any classical character than I have ever witnessed before.

Overall, in Ovid’s Heroine’s Pollard has concentrated all the pain, rage and passion of the classics into one emotional and beautiful hour of poetry which breathes life into Ovid’s words and the women behind these great monologues.

Rachel Patterson is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.