Wow. Iphigenia in Splott really makes its mark. It’s a big, painful sucker punch to the solar plexus, forcing us to confront all those prejudices we make about people we don’t know – people we see on the streets, and on buses, and in shops every day. People we judge on their appearance, their behaviour, all the time. All those little prejudices we keep hidden yet keep telling ourselves that we are good liberal people. All of that is shattered in this stunning and profoundly moving show.
Our Iphigenia is Effie (Sophie Melville) a young woman with – what we would judge as – a self-involved, hedonistic and wasteful existence. No job, no responsibilities, Effie spends her days smoking weed and drinking vodka, and her nights starting fights in bars. Effie would be perfect Daily Mail material.
And so we judge her.
In fact, Effie defies us to do just that. She’s in our faces boasting about her serial hangovers and promiscuity, she gloats as she recalls how she intimidates mothers and kids on the street. And yet, and yet…
A random meeting with an attractive soldier in a pub starts a chain of events that unravels Effie’s supreme confidence. Yet this Iphigenia, like the one of Greek tragedy, lives in a world that mocks her, exploits her, and ultimately abandons her.
This is a roller-coaster. At times you laugh, at others your heart breaks. At other moments you’re horrified at what happens, and then you’re horrified because you know what’s coming next.
This is an extraordinary piece of writing from Gary Owen. This could have been cliché-ridden, bringing nothing new to familiar ground. Yet instead it challenges not just our prejudices on people, but is also a biting commentary on this terrible period of ‘austerity’ that is cutting our society to the bone.
And it’s an extraordinary performance from Sophie Melville. She is a marvel. It is just Sophie on stage – just her, three chairs and some strip lighting. An 80 minute monologue that demands just about every emotion possible – from apathy to anger, from love to heartbreak – must drain every ounce of energy. Yet there was no hint of fatigue in Sophie’s performance.
She inhabits Effie completely and utterly, and she brings out all those beautiful and terrible contradictions. Her Effie is as vulnerable as she is obnoxious, and as kind as she is cruel. Effie is a wonderfully complex character and Sophie’s performance makes her entirely human, believable and – crucially – relatable.
Director Rachel O’Riordan has done an impressive job. And can we also have a quick mention on just how refreshing it is to hear a Welsh accent on stage, to have a play set in Wales (Splott is a town just outside Cardiff – I know this as my mother was born there)? God, what a welcome change. In fact this play is welcome in just about every way conceivable. Superb.
National Theatre, London to February 20, 2016
Image Credits: Mark Douet