Set on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s when it was a writers and artists’ colony, Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers has been my lockdown escapist’s treat. The writing is delicious, a full-sensory experience of seeing the purple bougainvillea, inhaling the fragrance of the sea air and tasting the icy liquorice of the raki.
Borrowing from the true life stories of Hydra’s bohemian inhabits, the main story revolves around the narrator Erica, a new arrival to the island. Following the death of her mother, Erica, who’s in her late teens, and her slightly older brother have escaped England and their brutal dictatorial father. While her brother pursues the artist’s life, along with plenty of sun, sex and sand, Erica dabbles in writing and in her boyfriend. But she’s really on the island to talk to Australian writer Charmian Clift, who knew Erica’s mother. Charmian becomes something of a reluctant mentor to young Erica, scolding her for supporting her boyfriend’s creative aspirations over her own. In time Charmian recognises herself in this as she plays muse and literary coach to her husband George Johnson. Their real-life turbulent literary partnership is well documented.
A titillating subplot weaves its way through the narrative, involving a young Leonard Cohen at a point when he falls in love with Marianne Ihlen, who was on again and off again, though eventually separated from the artist Axel Jensen. Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship lasted many years, unlike most on this island of free-love, and has been immortalised by some of Cohen’s own poems and more recently by the Netflix documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love.
Sidebar: I’m not a Leonard Cohen fan. Can I say that without getting trolled? I like some of his songs and his poems even more, but I simply do not understand the cult-like adoration.
Back to Samson’s exhilarating and beautiful book. Ultimately, it is a meditation on creativity and relationships, showing how together they can take form, crack and break.
For writers interested in biography or fictions based on true lives, the acknowledgements at the end are worth reading. The author gathered materials from interviews, some on radio and TV, some of her own, pieced together with memoirs and other artefacts. Some of the characters’ dialogue comes from their actual words.
For you Cohen fans, I close on Cohen’s description of life in Hydra: ‘There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra, and that includes Hydra.’