Ovid’s Heroines: Review of Clare Pollard at Durham Book Festival

ovids heroines

Clare Pollard’s book Ovid’s Heroines was published in 2013 to great critical acclaim. In her modern rendition of Ovid’s Heroides (a Roman collection of verse epistles or letter poems written from the perspective of women left behind by lovers and husbands of mythological fame) Pollard breathes fresh life into the anger, passion, grief and complaint of classical figures such as Sappho, Penelope, Ariadne and Medea. However, as Abigail Richards discovered during her one-woman show at Durham Book Festival, for Pollard the work of translation does not end here.

We are greeted upon arrival at the performance space in Durham University’s Palace Green Library by the sight of the poet scribbling furiously at a desk draped in dusty sheets. Scattered pages clutter the floor of this make-shift garret;  faded, coloured envelopes nestled amongst them invoke nostalgia for some non-specific era of our pre-digital past.  A romantic pop song burbles through the speakers.  Suddenly, Pollard is on her feet, atop the mess of letters.  Holding before her sheets of handwritten lines she speaks, her voice soft and sonorous yet edged with a gritty realism.  At one point, a single “fuck” startles through her lyrical verse—a reminder, lest we forget, that poetry emerges from worlds of experience, from lives of flesh and blood.  This is the cry of Sappho.

Suddenly, Pollard is on her feet, atop the mess of letters.  Holding before her sheets of handwritten lines she speaks, her voice soft and sonorous yet edged with a gritty realism.

Pollard puts down her lines and steps forward to speak to the audience directly, as she will do throughout the show.  This first time especially, the address creates its own drama.  The fourth wall breaks with a punctuating force that impresses upon us just how immersive Pollard’s performance as Ovid’s poet of Lesbos has truly been.  Key to its mesmerising charm is a polyphonic interplay between competing and sometimes conflicting voices, the effects of a panoramic intertextuality embedded deep within the work.  Pollard herself encourages us to hear her first poem as a conversation between Ovid, Sappho and herself, yet the audience, as listeners and readers, is also actively involved in the meaning-making process.   Translating into a language she claims for her own masculine ventriloquisations of female characters whose literary history long pre-dates Ovid’s Heroides,  Pollard’s work problematises straightforward notions of the relationship between identity, authorship and narrative time.  In doing so, a potentially limitless array of interlocutors both past and present are invited to inveigh upon the intimacy of the epistle form.

Top: Lady Hamilton as Medea, by George Romney [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Bottom: Amy Winehouse

Lady Hamilton as Medea, by George Romney; Amy Winehouse by Rama, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr. Both via Wikimedia Commons.

As the evening wears on and the alternately, catty, passionate, mournful and frenzied voices of Ariadne, Phaedra, Oenone, Deianira, Hipsypyle and Medea sound out from the narrow stage, this exchange proves to be both collaborative and fraught.  Choice samples from contemporary pop culture,  from Sia to Amy Winehouse, are used to introduce the cast of characters, nudging us to recognise parallels between the ways in which these ancient, fictional women were written and the modes by which their contemporaries perform themselves. Despite Pollard’s nuanced writing and obvious dramatic skill, there is a risk towards the end of the show that the individual literary interests of each tale, told in quick succession, begin to drown under a sea of overwhelming emotional excess.   Pollard’s final piece, a measured letter from the sage, loving but resigned Penelope to her famous husband Ulysses, provides a much needed respite from this sense of rising hysteria.

This is a show which is self-consciously provocative – and if the reaction of a Durham audience is anything to go by, it is a resounding success.  Outside the theatre a girl gesticulates angrily at her friend, riled by what she sees as the stereotyped misogyny of the fearsome Medea being made by Pollard to fall to her knees in supplication to Jason, seconds after she rips at the stage drapery in fury at her desertion.  As a viewer versed in the Heroides might know, this is not an unfair rendering of Ovid’s Latin witch.   Yet Pollard’s poems are also the result of a rich sedimentation that even the listener most familiar with the dialects of both classical and modern literary culture would struggle to fully digest. It is the emotional urgency of the performance that sustains its accessible and engaging core, producing a show that both entertains and encourages us to think critically about the politics and power-imbalances that condition, and are conditioned by, any narrative act.

Durham Book Festival ran from 6-17 October 2015; our reviews of many of the Festival events can be found here. Follow the organisers of the Festival, New Writing North, for more literary events throughout the year.


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