Book Review: A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

Escaping to a Greek Island where you can live cheaply for a year just so you can focus on your art, bask in the sun, swim and enjoy the delights of love, food and wine – what an idyll. Hydra in 1960 was just such an island, captured here in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson. Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston are established on Hydra and help out newly arrived artists eager to take a break from the rat-race to finish their novels, paint or create poetry.

It is where eighteen-year-old Erika holes up, still grieving the death of her mother and escaping a volatile father, London rain and the typing pool. With her is her boyfriend, emerging poet Jimmy, and brother Bobby and his girlfriend. There’s a connection with Charmian through Erika’s mother, and an expectation they can find a cheap house.

Madly in love, Erika doesn’t mind doing the donkey work – making sure they have clean water, meals and fetching ice to keep their food fresh. Charmian takes pity on her and encourages her to write – she sees in Erika a daughter figure, but also the watchfulness of a budding writer.

And there’s plenty to see – in particular the twenty-five-year-old Leonard Cohen, fresh off the boat with his guitar, eager to finish his first novel. But he’s distracted by Scandinavian beauty, Marianne Ihlen who is caught in a disastrous marriage with Axel Jansen, himself an enfant terrible of the literary world in Norway.

As well as a hub for expats coming and going, Charmian and George’s house becomes a second home to Erika. But the pair have financial problems, drink too much and argue a lot, George has poor health and issues with jealousy. Ah, the lives of the bohemians. Shaking off conformity and the rules of the nine-to-five working life, this enclave of creatives explore many new freedoms, break each other’s hearts and live like characters from bacchanalian scenes on a Grecian urn.

Samson has done a mound of research to bring these artists to life, helped no doubt by the records made not only in their writing, but in the pictures of Time-Life photographer, James Burke. The novel is in many ways a social history, highlighting the emergence of the counter-culture era that would turn into the swinging sixties, but also the feminism that waits in the wings.

And boy is it needed as several key female characters are left holding the baby, wiping the weary brows of their men, playing muse and ignoring their own careers. There is a lot in the book to think about as you read about the endless parties, the infidelities and drunken escapades. In the background the conservative local Greek population must have been pleased with the extra business garnered at the time the sponge industry was drying up, while shaking their heads at the various improprieties.

There are a lot of names – you might want to keep the Internet handy. I struggled to keep up with the different personalities that swept through. But I felt a strong sense of being there; Samson describes the island using all five senses and this alone makes the book really quite wonderful. A four out of five read from me.

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