A woman sits onstage wearing a mean glare and a tight ponytail telegraphing her readiness for a fight. "You lot," she gestures to us comfortable theatergoers, "Sitting back, taking it easy, waiting for me to – what? Impress you? Amaze you? Show you what I've got?" Oh dear...we brace ourselves for a one-woman show that aims to shock with its in-yer-face delivery, but just ends up boring us with its juvenile grasp of theatricality. Thankfully, Iphigenia in Splott isn't that show. It exceeds our expectations with a surprisingly sensitive story by playwright Gary Owen and a winning performance from Sophie Melville.
Now showing at 59E59 as part of Brits Off Broadway, the play follows Effie (Melville), a booze and drug-addled ne'er-do-well from a working-class suburb of Cardiff. "The only way I get through the week is a cycle of hangovers," she brags, like a high school bad girl who spends fifth period smoking in the loo. She never mentions any form of employment, but she does talk about her dolt of a boyfriend, Kev. She also tells us about Lee, an army veteran and amputee from the other side of town. She meets him in a pub one night and is instantly stuck by his gentleness and ability to make her feel not so alone.
It sounds like the setup to a modern spin on Romeo and Juliet, but this story is much closer to Euripides than Shakespeare. The title references the ancient Greek dramatist's Iphigenia in Aulis, which tells the story of King Agamemnon's decision to sacrifice his daughter to the goddess Artemis so that the Greek fleet will have smooth sailing to Troy. It lets us know that tragedy looms from the very beginning.
Granted, the story of Effie's eventual sacrifice feels like an excuse to make a heavy-handed statement about the deleterious effects of austerity on Britain's social welfare. Owen doesn't shy away from this contrivance, which makes his work more admirable than that of certain writers who have trod this territory before: The British have a long tradition of poverty-exploitation theater, from Edward Bond's Saved to Anna Jordan's Yen. While those two plays dress up shock as social consciousness, the equation is reversed for Iphigenia in Splott. Effie's behavior becomes less shocking and more sympathetic as the play progresses. By the end, we even come to see her as noble in certain ways, an impressive feat for the kind of character most of us would cross the street to avoid.
It helps that Melville is giving a nuanced and multilayered performance. She conveys the cosmetic aspects of Effie: her anger, her self-destructive tendencies, and her vanity. Her thick Welsh accent is seasoned with Valley Girl inflections, California's most ubiquitous export. While Melville comfortably inhabits this delinquent facade, she also allows us glimpses of the intelligent and self-aware woman underneath. Yes, Effie is vulgar, but she is also quite witty and we cannot help but laugh at even her most off-color observations. Melville delivers the language as if it is her own, resulting in a compelling portrait of a fully formed person.
Director Rachel O'Riordan garnishes this extraordinary performance with an appealingly spartan design: Hayley Grindle's set consists of three chairs. She has collaborated with lighting designer Rachel Mortimer to create an upstage light installation that looks like Venetian blinds someone tore down in a drunken rage and never bothered to clean up. The lights flicker and dim with the tone as Sam Jones' subtle sound design brings us into Effie's headspace. The sound of her shifting pulse as she gets drunk and falls in love makes for a particularly memorable passage.
You may not walk away from Iphigenia in Splott loving the protagonist, but it is hard not to respect her while thinking about the millions of little sacrifices our fellow citizens make daily, offerings that mostly go unheralded.
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