I read ‘A Theatre for Dreamers’ in a couple of sittings, becoming so immersed in its sense of place and time that I almost forgot about the current state of the world. It may have helped that the novel is set in Hydra, a place to which I feel a strong emotional connection, and it may have also helped that it features Leonard Cohen, an artist whose songs have meant a lot to me over the years, but for several hours I was in another world. And I was very pleased to be there.
It was impossible to read A Theatre for Dreamers, though, without thinking back to Nick Broomfield’s documentary of last year – Words of Love; Marianne and Leonard. His film traces the relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen from their meeting in the sixties on the Greek island of Hydra to their deaths, within months of each other, in 2016. What seems at first to be a moving love story becomes, on reflection, something more disturbing, raising unanswered questions about attitudes to women and the damage the 60’s Hydra community did to themselves, each other and, most distressingly, to their children.
Polly Samson’s ‘A Theatre of Dreamers’ is a fictional exploration of the same territory, but it focuses on a more specific time – 1960, and the beginning of the Marianne-Leonard relationship. It is narrated by Erica, a teenage girl who, using a legacy from her mother, travels to Hydra with brother Bobby and boyfriend Jimmy. Here she finds herself in a group of bohemians and artists surrounding authors Charmian Clift (an old family friend) and her husband George Johnson. Among them is Marianne, her husband Alex Jensen, and the newly arrived Canadian poet Leonard Cohen. Through Erica’s eyes we see the Marianne-Leonard relationship develop – like the lives of the Hydra-dwelling group of bohemians, it is turbulent and troubled.
The novel is not without its problems. Some of the writing is overwrought – too many adjectives, too much description, and a sense that such prose is beyond the capability of the somewhat characterless narrator ( one reviewer has compared her to Nick Carraway, but the difference is that Carraway narrates ‘The Great Gatsby’ from a retrospective position of maturity and his self-consciously literary narration makes it clear that he is being used by Fitzgerald as the ‘novelist’).
Another problem is that too many characters are introduced suddenly and insufficiently developed. I may be alone, but I was left wanting more of Leonard Cohen, frustrated that his story is reduced to walk-on parts in the service of the much less interesting story of what happens to the narrator. And in some of his appearances, Samson’s decision to use many of the words actually spoken by Cohen makes him seem like an Open University philosophy lecturer who’s walked into the wrong party.
Overall, though, ‘A Theatre for Dreamers’ works as a much-needed piece of escapism, immersing you in the clear blue waters of Hydra, and in the rhythms, details and geography of its daily life. Erica’s account also raises important questions about love and art, not least about the relationship between women and their creative partners. “Ah where would these male writers be without their ministering angels?” asks Charmian, alerting us to the blurred boundaries that separate the roles of muse, sexual object, and supplier of domestic needs, and reminding us of the way Polly Samson’s novel gives voice to the women so often suppressed in other accounts.
But, as in Broomfield’s documentary, the real star of the show is Hydra itself. The haven for free-living sixties artists and bohemians may be beautiful and mysterious but, like the monster whose name it shares, it is also dangerous and destructive.