Theatre review: Iphigenia in Splott
One-woman tragedy's fiery call for revolution
Tremendous. That is the only way to describe Gary Owens' one-woman play "Iphigenia in Splott", directed by Rachel O'Riordan and starring Sophie Melville as Effie.
Effie is a hoody. This young woman provocatively stares life in the face in the desolation that has become South Wales. Closures of facilities, cuts to basic services, drink, drugs and isolation.
Once the heartland of engineering, mining and steel production, the Welsh working class had established a powerful trade union movement where community ties were steadfast. Now the bosses have created an industrial desert where all workers suffer.
Sophie captivates her audience with a powerful performance full of physical strength, movement and intense emotion. Any actor could speak those words of defiance, but Sophie grew up in Swansea and has lived these experiences in her own community. Her portrayal of Effie reveals the depth of her own feelings and experiences.
Effie is a desolate character, but she is not going to let that get her down. Then one night she meets the man of her dreams.
Her life is turned around. She rejoices. Not that she is in love, seeing pink roses everywhere. Rather she says: "I am not alone" - a powerful sentiment. Horizons open up, only to be followed by acute disappointment - dumped and pregnant.
The final part of the play is a harrowing tragedy about the birth of her baby in an underfunded NHS with overworked professionals.
This spirited young performer even tweeted Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, inviting him to come see "what the NHS means to the majority".
Sophie not only hails from Swansea, but grew up in a family where socialist ideas were discussed. Her grandfather, Alec Thraves, is a long-standing organiser of the Socialist Party.
Effie, in final exasperation, muses: "It seems it's always places like this and people like us who have to take it when the time for cutting comes." But she goes on to defiantly pose the crucial question facing the whole working class today. "And I wonder just how long we are gonna have to take it... And I wonder what is gonna happen when we can't take it anymore?"
Many critics, including the Socialist Party's Kate Jones in an earlier review, have rightly interpreted this as a call to revolution. The audience jumped to its feet.
Let's hope playwrights like Gary Owen will produce more plays for actors like Sophie Melville on current social themes. But perhaps also go further and write about how to change the whole rotten system. There would be a ready audience for this kind of theatre - not just in south Wales, but everywhere.
- Iphigenia in Splott is touring nationally until 16 April 2016. See venues and times here: http://tiny.cc/splott
This short performance has just closed to the highest acclamation at the National Theatre on London's South Bank. It premiered in Cardiff in July 2015, when Kate Jones's review kindled interest for Socialist readers. The play then went to Edinburgh where Sophie Melville won the Stage award for acting excellence. It now goes on tour around the country.
The work's title is a clever twist on the eighteenth-century opera "Iphigenia on Taurus". This was in turn based on the character of Iphigenia, whose life was offered up to save her people in a famous play by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripedes.
Since then the name Iphigenia has become synonymous with sacrifice. In this play Iphigenia becomes Effie, and Taurus becomes Splott, a working class district of Cardiff.
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