Iphigenia in Splott - Review

A rollercoaster of a story, written with insight and skill by Gary Owen, this one woman drama is about young Effie from Splott (an area of urban deprivation in Cardiff, familiar to these eyes). In an authentic and sympathetic portrayal by actor Sophie Melville, Effie is an intimidating hoodie wearer in leggings who cusses fat mums at bus stops, and grinds on the dancefloor yet she's also a vulnerable woman who chooses to make the ultimate sacrifice for her community, "What gets me through is knowing I took this pain, and saved all of you from suffering the same." Her relationships, her lifestyle, her ‘choices’ are underpinned by a lack of autonomy and opportunity.

Binge-drinking culture and the plight of single mothers are examined through Effie's reality and the final message is how government austerity measures ravage the poorest, those with the least social mobility and whose lives and deaths are a consequence. It’s a message well told from ‘the horses mouth’. It's no accident that Gary Owen chose a female protagonist for his parable. Women are hardest hit by austerity measures.*

The ‘Iphigenia’ of this drama (in Greek mythology a princess who was to be killed as a sacrifice due to her father offending a god) is Effie, whose life is similarly in the hands of the gods or Cameron's cabinet – played like a pawn on a chess board each time a new cut is pushed through. And the feminist in me thinks, how many women, from Iphigenia in ancient Greece, to modern day Effie in Splott are paying for men's mistakes? (In Parliament, business and between the sheets).

The bare strip lighting as a set means that all our attention is focused on Sophie Melville. It reminded me of all the lights going on at kicking out time at a club, as bleary eyed revellers blink at harsh reality returning. As the unforgiving glare illuminates Sophie Melville she returns our gaze, as the swaggering, streetwise Effie. I wonder how many real life Effie’s will get to see the production for themselves? ** As theatre is (mainly) a middle class activity and the price barriers to entry. Even the title ‘Iphigenia’ presumes some classical knowledge or recognition on the part of the audience-goer. However, a play about Splott may have enticed Cardiffians who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre, wanting to know what this show is that references their home town.

It is a play about Wales. About the water that surrounds Cardiff. About Ely, another suburb of poverty. St Mary Street, the place for drinkers and party goers. Abergavenny in the mountains. The pressures put on the NHS system in Wales. Gary Owen's writing is lyrical and epic, like the classical myth it references. It’s a play by a writer from Bridgend with an actor from Swansea, 'Iphigenia in Splott' has a Welsh voice and universal truths and it is refreshing to come out of the mouth of a woman, a woman whose voice is usually silenced.***

This voice is aided by direction from Sherman Cymru Theatre’s artistic director Rachel O’Riordan and thank goodness this play is being shown at the National Theatre in London and didn’t begin and end in Cardiff. It deserves to be seen in the Houses of Parliament and on TV. But not TV in a 'poverty porn' sense where people's plight are used as entertainment in a kind of Orwellian dystopia - 'Iphigenia in Splott' exists to engage people, to rouse them from their chair into action and defiance.

'Iphigenia in Splott' reflects so many people’s lives – from the bedroom tax to disability allowance cuts, ‘universal credit’ for jobseekers and everything that 38 degrees petition about – how many of us know someone affected by austerity measures? The poor never got the UK into financial deficit in the first place (banks), why are they the scapegoats?

‘Iphigenia in Splott’ is a fantastic piece of theatre and deserves five stars for its message alone.

(c) Wendy Thomson 2016

Review is based on the production seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Pleasance Dome, presented by Sherman Cymru, Edinburgh August 2015.

Now at the National Theatre, London. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/iphigenia-in-splott

* Women disproprotionately affected by austerity: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/28/women-austerity-charities... Nine out of ten single parents are women - child benefit and tax credits have been frozen. Cuts and closures to domestic violence refuges have put these services and affected women in crisis.

** Delighted to report that the Sherman Theatre responded to me about this question on twitter - their project Sherman 5 is funded by the Paul Hamlyn foundation which supports audiences who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre, "we can confirm they saw this play". Also Sherman Theatre 5 "supported members to see Gary's play Violence and Son at @royalcourt 'A top class day' " https://shermancymru.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/sherman-5-does-london-2/

***"it is refreshing to come out of the mouth of a woman, a woman whose voice is usually silenced." - out of a female actor's mouth but out of Gary Owen's pen, who I think so sensitively portrays Effie that he must be a feminist. There is not anything wrong with a male writer penning a one-woman drama (it's great in many ways, not least more parts for female actors) except, it does make me wonder, when will the real Effie / Iphigenia's of this world be able to tell their own story, in their own words, to articulate to a wide audience?

As a potential Effie myself, growing up in a low-income dysfunctional family in a deprived part of London, I was fortunate to attend University before student loans became a lifetime of debt - I was able to get a foot on the housing ladder before prices in the South-East trebled - what chances are there for the next generation of intelligent minds in the working and under classes? The rung I climbed up has been severed.

As a woman and a parent I'm discriminated by institutional patriarchy in employers who don't make every (sometimes any) effort with flexible or part-time working practices. And this is with the education, professional qualifications and skills I have. There are many other women in my position. Who's going to listen to our stories? What about mums, like mine who raised their children on a mixture of benefits and part-time work and are seeing that support cut? Women fleeing war zones?

Female Arts is producing RED Women's Theatre awards because we want to listen to Iphigenia from Splott. To Wendy from Reading (formerly Walthamstow). To Mehnaz from Croydon. Naomi from Glasgow. Amira from Syria (now Caerphilly). We want to see plays authored by women, to have their voices heard and unique experiences shared. Women with questioning, social and political voices. We recognise that women on low incomes might want to attend a (free) playwrighting course to do justice to their stories in this format. We're aiming to provide this, watch this space.

The first date of RED Women's Theatre awards this year is Sunday 6th March at the Greenwich Theatre, London. Join us. http://www.redwomenstheatreawards.com/

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