Review: Iphigenia in Splott – Everyman Theatre

Photo@ Mark Douet
FOLLOWING a triumphant opening run last May at Sherman Theatre Cymru, Gary Owen’s award-winning Iphigenia in Splott embarked on a 12 venue national tour, beginning at the National’s temporary space on the South Bank and ending this week at Liverpool’s Everyman. It’s the second of two one-woman shows to appear here in as many weeks in a specially adapted stage layout, the first being A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, reviewed here last week. But, apart from fiery delivery from a solo performer, the two shows could barely be more different. While the former is a deeply introspective piece that makes the audience work along with the actor, Owen’s Iphigenia gives us a lot more signposts along the way, handing us the moral message neatly packaged at the end. Sophie Melville plays Effie, who skulks onto the stage shrouded in her street uniform hoodie and begins by addressing us in accusatory tones – she knows what we all think when we see her, she tells us, in no uncertain terms. This modern day Iphigenia has little similarity with her Ancient Greek counterpart, sacrificed by Agamemnon at Aulis, but the references are clear enough as she is pushed to an ultimate test for the ills of an ailing society and ultimately makes her own sacrifice for which, she makes clear, we are all be deeply in her debt. Melville’s performance is pin-sharp and keeps the audience on the edge of our seats and holding our breath for much of its unbroken 75 minutes, and under Rachel O’Riordan’s expert direction she times every passage perfectly, whether storming about the stage or holding us in silent suspense. Even passages of laboured breath become supplementary dialogue. Hayley Grindle’s stage design and Rachel Mortimer’s lighting are inseparable, as the almost bare stage is formed into time and place with the movement of light within an array of flickering tube lamps, and further atmosphere seeps from Sam Jones’s subliminal, pulsating soundtrack. We can all share the anger of Effie as she rails against austerity and the fact that those least able to defend themselves are left to bear the greatest burden, and her own story of self-redemption is a powerful one. Gary Owen touches further contemporary issues but without ever straying from his central message, introducing, among others, an ex-soldier whose life has been shattered by an IED. There are times when the writing is almost too tidily done, leaving little work for the audience to do, but there’s no denying the power of both the story and its delivery, and a standing ovation at the end speaks for itself. And the question we are left with in the closing lines – just exactly what will happen when we can’t take any more? Review by Nigel Smith