Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott returns to the stage following several previous illustrious outings, including runs in Cardiff, London and New York. It has even been released in audio format as an Audible Studio Recording. Now it’s back to London for a stint at Lyric Hammersmith, with Sophie Melville reprising the role of Effie under the direction of Rachel O’Riordan.
Taking inspiration from the Greek myth, which sees that Iphigenia make the ultimate sacrifice to save others, Owen’s version of Iphigenia, Effie, initially seems very different to her mythical counterpart. Growing up in Splott, a district of Cardiff, Effie tells us aggressively that people think she’s “a slag and a nasty skank”, as she confesses to hiding vodka bottles in her underwear, burping in the faces of bar managers, and throwing up in the Chicken Cottage.
Quite intentionally, the audience are primed to loathe Effie. The character embodies the very worst of today’s society, and comes at us filled with rage, fury, and entitlement. The natural response of the audience is to feel defensive and disgusted in equal measure, but there’s something very funny about it all too, and the first half is filled with a comedy often born from tragic irony, another nod to Euripides’ version of Iphigenia, set in Aulis rather than Splott.
But Owen’s monologue takes us on a revelatory journey. We start to see Effie in a different light after a drink fuelled night sees her going to bed with a man that is not her boyfriend. The pair share their injuries and scars, for the former soldier, his are physical, for Effie, they are psychological.
It is the consequences of that night that make up the second half of Iphigenia in Splott. When Effie falls pregnant, the small support network she has starts to rally round with varying degrees of success. It’s here that we start to feel empathy for Effie, as impending motherhood creates a different character to the previously loud-mouthed chav we were all so quick to judge.
As is so often the case for people like Effie, things don’t go to plan; her class and socio-economic status working against her at every turn. The result is emotionally charged, and leaves the audience reeling, finally our Iphigenia is more aligned to the Greek heroine.
Sophie Melville has had plenty of time to settle into the role of Effie, and it comes across in this superbly executed performance. The lines delivered in the early part of the play spew out with more than enough vitriol to get our backs up, but when that time for change comes, Melville ensures the audience are on board, feeling every ounce of her pain with her.
Hayley Grindle’s design, alongside Rachel Mortimer’s lighting, keeps things beautifully simple, allowing Melville to bring Effie to life through Owen’s mesmerising script. Rachel O’Riordan gives the piece space to breathe where it needs it, while dialling up the pace as Effie’s life spins from one disaster to the next.
Iphigenia in Splott delivers exactly what theatre should; a richly drawn character which the audience joins on a journey of discovery. It’s only a couple of years off a decade since the play premiered, and yet it still feels like ‘Iphigenias’ right across the country are still being forced to make sacrifices at the hands of an inhumane system. With a new government recently installed, seemingly intent on continuing the destruction of the support system there for those who need it most, Iphigenia in Splott remains a devastatingly candid state of the nation play.
Iphigenia in Splott is at Lyric Hammersmith until 22nd October.