Iphigenia in Splott

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Iphigenia In Splott
Photo by Mark Douet

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Gary Owen's politicised rewiring of an ancient Greek myth reopens the Lyric Hammersmith

‘Iphigenia in Splott’ will be restaged at the Lyric Hammersmith in front of a socially distanced audience. This review is from the National Theatre, 2016.

The most harrowing thing on the London stage last year was the bit in the Almeida’s ‘Oresteia’ that covered the myth of Iphigenia, the little girl sacrificed by her father to appease the Greek gods. It was one of the most genuinely upsetting things I’ve ever seen, so I was pretty much braced to feel terrible feelings during Gary Owen’s monologue take on the same story. But while ‘Iphigenia in Splott’ will certainly jerk a few tears, the abiding emotion here is righteous anger.

In fact, it’s not so much a version of the myth as a completely different story which makes pointed reference to the ancient tale. Effie (Sophie Melville) is a young Welsh woman from Cardiff – presumably the district of Splott – and she is an absolute nightmare. Or that’s the first impression: she is a bristling, lairy, self-confident, working-class hellraiser who fucks, fights and boozes through life with almost holy dedication.

And yet Owen and the extraordinary, full-tilt Melville make us love Effie – for her courage, for her wit, and for how utterly shit-kicking she is as she snarls through life like an apex predator… Until, one night, she fobs off her dismal boyfriend so she can hook up with a charming, disabled ex-squaddie she meets down the pub.

The meeting triggers a chain of events revealing Effie’s emotional then physical vulnerability, as she finds herself in the care of an under-resourced NHS for a final phase in which the play morphs into a ferocious attack on austerity politics. Effie is hardly a stereotypical victim – it’s certainly not clear-cut that she ‘is’ Iphigenia – but in certain respects the NHS is her last and only lifeline, and its erosion leaves her with no safety net at all.

Much of the brilliance of Rachel O’Riordan’s kinetic production is that, for all its ferocity, it introduces its polemic with great subtlety. Though it begins with Effie breaking the fourth wall to bark that we’d dismiss her as a ‘nasty skank’ if we saw her in the street, there’s only really the odd hint about the play’s final destination in a first 45 minutes that serve as a celebration of the marginalised British working class. When tragedy strikes and Owen and Effie finally turn their guns on austerity, on Hunt, on IDS – above all on us – it feels both utterly devastating and completely earned.

Recent years have proven oddly infertile for political theatre, but ‘Iphigenia in Splott’ is the sort of clear-eyed rallying cry that deserves to force a change.

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