|Sophie Melville in IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT. Photo by Mark Douet.|
In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father, King Agamemnon, in order to placate the goddess Artemis, so that she would allow his ships to sail to Troy. And it is that myth which inspired Gary Owen to write Iphigenia in Splott – the British play that scored such a resounding success in Cardiff and Edinburgh before opening to rave reviews and playing to sold-out audiences in London’s National Theatre. Now the play has crossed the pond, debuting at 59E59 Theatres on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program and I have little doubt that American audiences will embrace it just as enthusiastically.
This is an extraordinary one-woman show, starring Sophie Melville as Effie, an irrepressible potty-mouthed “stupid slag” and “nasty skank” (to use her own words) who, often as not, can be found wandering the streets of Splott in Cardiff, with an “in-your-face” confrontational attitude toward everyone she meets. In an incredibly powerful monologue, she lets us know in no uncertain terms that she is an alcoholic and a drug-user; that she is irresponsibly promiscuous; that she is dependent for her survival, at least in part, on her grandmother’s charity – and that she feels a sense of victimization at the hands of society about it all.
When Effie hooks up with Lee, a wounded war veteran who lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan, she envisions her life changing dramatically. But things don’t always turn out as one expects and the night Effie spent shagging Lee was just one of those things. Yes, it affected her life deeply – just not as she imagined it would.
As a theatrical performance, Ms Melville leaves nothing to be desired. She is physically as lithe as a feral cat and exhibits a comparable animal spirit. Hers is a performance that truly deserves five stars.
But as to the play itself, and the message it seeks to convey, that is an entirely different matter. It appears to me that Gary Owen is championing a world in which a sense of entitlement justifies individual irresponsibility and a reliance on “society” to fix everything and, since “society” didn’t fix everything for Effie, she was just as much a sacrificial victim as was Iphigenia. But the analogy is a false one. Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father for his own failing (it was he who accidentally killed a deer in a grove sacred to Artemis for which he sought absolution, not through his own sacrifice but through that of his daughter). But Effie has brought all her troubles on herself: “society” did not force her to drink or do drugs or engage in unprotected sex with strangers. Her crises are of her own making, not of anyone else’s, and no sacrifice she might ultimately make as a consequence of her own misbehavior is comparable to Iphigenia’s.
I am well aware that many people disagree with me, that they prefer to blame “society” or “the man” or “the system” or “Wall Street” or “the top 1%” or anyone other than themselves for their problems. Indeed, the press release itself for this production asserts that the play “drives home the high price people pay for society’s shortcomings.” In his review of the National Theatre’s production for The Stage, Tom Wicker described the play as “a blisteringly powerful indictment of society’s failings….” And Lyn Gardner, in her review for The Guardian, wrote: “Iphigenia was Agamemnon’s daughter, sacrificed by her father to ensure a fair wind to Troy and to further the ambitions of men. But who are the Iphigenias of today, being sacrificed in the pursuit of growth and profit? Seeing the heart torn out of your community and services cut is like having your tongue put out.”
If you happen to fall into that group of those who blame “society” for all their problems (I hope you don’t), then you will probably enjoy this production even more because, in addition to its being a bravura performance by a superb actress, it will reinforce your communal political philosophy. But even if you don’t, if (like me), you still believe in individuals taking responsibility for their own lives, you’re still likely to appreciate Ms Melville’s terrific performance.