A Theatre For Dreamers by Polly Samson
Brighton based novelist Polly Samson’s latest, A Theatre for Dreamers, just out in paperback, is set on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, home to a bohemian community of writers, painters and musicians including Leonard Cohen, Australian novelist Charmian Clift, her husband George Johnston, Norwegian Axel Jenson and his beautiful wife (soon to be Cohen’s girlfriend) Marianne Ihlen.
This is a coming of age novel as into this mix of true-life characters, Samson introduces Erica, a fictional 18-year-old travelling from London who becomes our guide to this community who sit somewhere between the Beats and the Hippies, just 15 years after the end of World War II. The descriptions of islands are gorgeous: an amphitheatre of houses all focused towards the sea, stray cats waiting for the fishing boats, swimming at midnight in a silvery trail of moonlight, delicious lunches.
Samson is interested in the burgeoning feminism of the early 60s and women’s creative lives. There is tension between Charmian and George, Erica and her boyfriend Jimmy as well as Cohen and Marianne as the women end up subservient to the artistic endeavours of the other even while supposedly inspiring them.
As she did in real life, Marianne leaves a sandwich on Leonard’s desk every morning before he begins his day’s writing. Charmian warns Erica to never let a man clip her wings, observing that she’s seen her looking after Jimmy at the expense of her own writing time.
Using letters and notes, Samson creates Leonard Cohen’s dialogue from his own words, bringing an authenticity to the character’s voice. This is an honest portrayal of Cohen – he promises nothing to Marianne. And sitting on the periphery of this artistic circle, Erica watches as a paradise unravels.
Alive with the heat and light of Greece, the novel completely transported me to a faraway place, and is a lovely read for a time when we can’t get away. Highly recommended.
Dymphna Flynn is an audio producer and books journalist and a Judge on the Costa Book Awards 2021, First Novel category.