Iphigenia in Splott. Hard to pronounce. Hard to get a ticket for…
Iphigenia in Splott is currently on in The Studio at the Bristol Old Vic, but unless you already have tickets for the last performance tonight you probably won’t see it there, as the show is totally sold out. After seeing it on Thursday night I’m really not surprised, it is a fantastic and important piece of theatre, and word obviously got out about it early. This one-woman monologue performed by Sophie Melville, written by Gary Owen and directed by Rachel O’Riordan won a UK Theatre Award for Best New Play 2015, and it is easy to see why; it is a masterpiece that is uncomfortable to watch yet impossible to tear your eyes away from.
Set in Splott, an area in the south of Cardiff, the story takes inspiration from the Greek myth where Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the goddess Artemis. Artemis prevents Agamemnon’s ships from sailing to Troy after he displeases her by killing a sacred deer. Iphigenia must ultimately decide for herself whether she will be sacrificed for the good of her countrymen, so that the ships can once again set sail.
As we meet Effie, our tiny, sneering, gobshite of an anti-heroine it is initially hard to see the link between the two stories. Her life is a mess, she bounces from one three day hangover to the next, falling into bed with a string of lowlife men along the way. Her future seems depressingly predictable, and you don’t feel much hope for her. Effie is a firecracker, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be too close to her when she explodes. She is the sort of girl you would drop your eyes to avoid making eye contact with; you might cross to the other side of the road to avoid her. As the play unfolds, she briefly holds in her hands a future where she might just drag herself out of the hole she is in, where she might not be alone. But will she have to throw it away to make the ultimate sacrifice for us all?
Sophie Melville plays this character with remarkable skill and believability. She tells you right at the beginning of the show that you aren’t going to like her. She believes we will think her a ‘stupid slag’ and a ‘nasty skank’. She knows we are going to judge her, knows that most of us have probably been guilty in the past of judging girls like her. What she shows us with her incredible acting talent and the skill of the script though is that we really don’t know the half of it. She moves from uncontained aggression and cockiness to alarming vulnerability with ease. I didn’t want to like this character, but at times I found myself empathising with her raw pain so much that is was nearly unbearable. At many times during the show I felt like she was talking directly to me, and daring me to look away. I managed not to look away as I didn’t want her to think I was scared of her (I was a little, much was the believability of Melville) but I also wanted to show some solidarity to this scared, angry little girl who was suffering so much.
It was uncomfortable to recognise a few little bits of myself in Effie. I’d like to feel I am totally different from her; these moments of recognition were fleeting, but existed nevertheless. What I wanted was to go back to my original place of feeling like we were women who were very much removed from each other with little in common, because this is a more comfortable position to adopt. And that is the whole point of this show. It is people like Effie who are being asked to make the biggest sacrifices in austerity Britain, despite those famous yet ridiculous claims from certain government ministers that we are ‘all in it together’. And isn’t it easier to take things away from people if you are removed from them and their struggles? I wanted the government ministers responsible for making the cuts to services that people like Effie have to take the brunt of to see this show in its entirety. I know it would make uncomfortable viewing for them; I wonder if they would find it as easy to make some of the brutal cuts they do when they would be absolutely unable to turn away from the realities and consequences of them?
Give it a go; ring the box office of the Bristol Old Vic now to see if there are any cancellations for tonight. I doubt you will be that lucky, but if you are then I am certain you will be knocked off your feet by this show in the way I was.
Review by Karen Blake