A Theatre for Dreamers, Review: Haunting mercurial artistry

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson is immersive historical fiction inspired by real people and events. Read on for my full review of this transportative, haunting read.

A Theatre for Dreamers Synopsis

A Theatre for Dreamers - Polly Samson1960. The world is dancing on the edge of revolution, and nowhere more so than on the Greek island of Hydra, where a circle of poets, painters and musicians live tangled lives, ruled by the writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, troubled king and queen of bohemia. Forming within this circle is a triangle: its points the magnetic, destructive writer Axel Jensen, his dazzling wife Marianne Ihlen, and a young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen.

Into their midst arrives teenage Erica, with little more than a bundle of blank notebooks and her grief for her mother. Settling on the periphery of this circle, she watches, entranced and disquieted, as a paradise unravels.

Burning with the heat and light of Greece, A Theatre for Dreamers is a spellbinding novel about utopian dreams and innocence lost – and the wars waged between men and women on the battlegrounds of genius.

(Bloomsbury – April 2020)

Genre: Historical, Drama, Literature

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I am a little late to the party when it comes to this much-lauded April release, A Theatre for Dreamers. From its opening lines, I was transfixed by the languorous beauty of Samson’s prose and the emotional depth and honesty of Erica’s narrative.

It’s a climb from the port and I take the steps of Donkey Shit Lane at a steady pace, a heart-shaped stone in my pocket. I walk along and, though there’s no one to witness, I resist the urge to stop and rest at the standing posts after the steepest part. I watch my step, a stumble can so easily become a fall, a thought that disgusts the gazelle still living within my stiffening body.

So much is alluded to and indeed foretold in this reflective opening paragraph… The mercurial personalities and bohemian adventures of the past to be revealed, the fleeting nature of youth, and the deep shadows, contradictions and scorched legacies seemingly inevitable in the lives of those that shine the brightest living life close to the sun.

Setting and characterisation

The iconic movie setting, the Greek island of Hydra, its inhabitants and various deprivations, are largely depicted through the golden-hued, escapist filter of Erica’s youthful and previously cloistered perspective. But Samson brings the scuff marks into focus over time. Indeed the enduring setting, and its seasons, is perhaps the most well-drawn of all the characters in this novel.

The port of Hydra sweeps into view suddenly, dramatically, like a curtain has been raised between mountains. The symmetry of stone walls and mansions imposes a perfect horseshoe around the water where tiers of white houses rise like the seats of an ampitheatre.

It’s a magic trick from barren rock, a theatre for dreamers. The stage is lit by sun and sea and I’m gripping the rail on deck and Jimmy’s got me by the waist as though he thinks I might leap as the port and its toy town come at us out of the blue.

Factual inspiration

But this novel’s attraction, beyond its prose stylings, is how real people and pivotal moments in their lives are central to this fiction. Polly Samson explains how a set of photos taken of the creative colony in 1960 inspired her to write A Theatre for Dreamers.

This is a story about ideas, ideals and agency. Polly Samson’s diligence in incorporating factual elements and resultant meandering plot may prove a weakness for some. But for me, at this time, A Theatre for Dreamers was a transportive, haunting read.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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More enthralling historical fiction:
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter  /  Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth /  Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder  /  Mammoth by Chris Flynn

About the Author, Polly Samson

Polly Samson is the author of two short story collections and two previous novels. Her work has been shortlisted for numerous prizes, translated into several languages and has been dramatised on BBC Radio 4. Her novel The Kindness was named Book of the Year by The Times and Observer. She has written lyrics for four Number One albums and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Check out her website and Twitter.

* My receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions.

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