It’s tempting to discuss Iphigenia in Splott, – Gary Owen’s new one-woman play about austerity – purely in terms of its proximity to the General Election. Of course the timing of the production is knowingly apposite, and the play has surely become even more powerful in light of last week’s results. In this regard Iphigenia continues the Sherman Theatre’s commitment to staging socially relevant and confrontational contemporary drama. And while this is more than just an “issues” play, it nonetheless cuts deep in its examination of austerity, centering on those who bear the brunt of punitive social reforms made in the name of economic recovery. Its greatest achievement is the way it speaks about big-picture, country-wide issues via a microscopic focus on an individual life. This is raw, provocative and deeply moving stuff.
The play is set in Splott (an inner-city district of Cardiff), and concerns Effie: a young, unemployed, angry girl whose life “spirals through a mess of drink, drugs and drama”. Essentially Iphigenia in Splott is a 75-minute monologue, during which Effie – always addressing the audience directly – describes and re-enacts her life; from street arguments and sex, through to drug taking and a strikingly visceral scene in a hospital.
Iphigenia hits the ground running with its appropriation of the themes of its ancient Greek namesake. Effie considers herself to have been sacrificed under the aegis of austerity, much like Agamemnon’s daughter was killed in the pursuit of a supposed greater good. Whether or not this sacrifice is truly willing is one the play’s key ambiguities.
You all are here to give thanks
Yeah I know it’s a shock
But you lot, every single one
You’re in my debt.
And tonight – boys and girls, ladies and gents –
I’ve come to collect.
This immediately creates a kind of social tension between Effie and the play’s audience; the majority, if not all, of whom, I imagine, have never suffered in any meaningfully negative way at the hands of austerity. It’s possible to interpret this tension as a wry dig at the theatre world’s much-publicised struggle to attract demographically diverse audiences. I mean, I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you really must.
But all this austerity stuff is very subtly deployed; it’s in the subtext, it forms the background; only rising to the surface in, for example, the occasional mention of a closed-down swimming pool, or references to formerly busy streets of shops, now empty and abandoned. The cuts may be the cause of much of the difficulty in Effie’s life, but don’t expect long political diatribes or invective about government policy. This is a play that makes its point about austerity through an intimate portrayal of the day-to-day life of a woman in poverty, rather than through grand statements and ideology.
The play’s staging is likewise apocalyptically minimalist: the most prominent feature is a column of fluorescent tube lights; perfectly arranged and properly ordered at the top, but collapsing and subsiding at the bottom in a brilliant visual metaphor for the social structures being critiqued by the drama.
Despite what I’ve written above, however, Iphigenia in Splott isn’t unrelentingly bleak. There’s an undercurrent of wit and dark humour which creates some wonderful tonal variations without undermining the seriousness of the play’s subject. Gary Owen’s script is sharp and deftly controlled; modern in its use of slang and colloquialisms, but traditional in its concern for rhyme and prosodic rhythm. Every character that Effie describes to us is distinct and idiosyncratic, without ever devolving into stereotype or caricature, a feat achieved in part by this convergence of heart-rending drama with pointed humour.
The bulk of my praise, however, must go to Sophie Melville’s utterly mindblowing performance as Effie. As the only actor onstage for the entire, interval-less 75 minutes, Melville commands your attention for every single second. She fills the space with constant movement, and runs such a gamut of wide-ranging and complex emotions as to make summing-up her performance an incredibly difficult task. Speaking in a thick, working class Cardiff accent, one moment Effie might be a flirtatious drunk or a cocky street kid, a maelstrom of anger or passion, but the next she might be fragile and innocent, revealing a youthful vulnerability behind the swaggering outer facade. Melville’s delivery is similarly diverse, from a frenetic, slang-heavy and rap-like cascade, to a delicate and frail introspection delivered so slowly and quietly that the audience leaned forward on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next revelation.
The transitions between these moments are always fluid and organic; this is a complex character piece. We may hate Effie when she first struts onstage, abrasive and accusing, but when she confides in us her heart-breaking desire to feel “not alone”, surrounded by nothing but three empty chairs and some flickering tube lights, our opinions of her are very different. It’s a performance that never lets up its emotional intensity and humanity. People were crying. I’ll never forget it.
Iphigenia in Splott is a shocking, powerful, and moving play; a masterpiece of post-recession theatre; state-of-the-nation told via the state of an individual. In a recent Daily Mail article, Tom Conti commented that socialism and anti-austerity comes from a place of hatred and jealousy, but he’s wrong; they come from a place of anger, and this is an angry, charged and sad play. While Iphigenia in Splott isn’t quite a direct call for revolution, it’s certainly a warning, “What is gonna happen when we can’t take it anymore?”. I hope it at least serves as an eye-opener to those disinterested in the real-world consequences of austerity. If you live anywhere near Cardiff: go and see it. If you’re going to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival: go and see it. Hell, if you live in San Francisco, get on a plane, come to Cardiff, and go and see it!
(All images © Mark Douet)