Iphigenia in Splott review – a shattering modern classic that distils all our troubles

Lyric Hammersmith, London
Gary Owen’s magnificent one-woman monologue brings Greek tragedy to Cardiff and reveals the terrible emotional costs of our societal shortfalls

This monologue was first performed in 2015, when its tragedies spoke of the effects of austerity-era Britain on the lives of the “little people”. It felt very much of the moment. Now, Gary Owen’s magnificent, eviscerating play still speaks to us about the sorry state of our nation but feels as if it was written for this year, month, and moment.

That is partly down to coincidental timing but also to its artistry. Sophie Melville returns to play Effie, a loud and lairy young woman from Cardiff whose life is threaded through with Greek tragedy.

She is a natural storyteller, swaggering as she takes us through the one-night stands and three-day hangovers that comprise her life. Melville somehow manages to encapsulate both the kinetic verbal highs of one of Irvine Welsh’s trainspotters and the stillness of Alan Bennett’s lonely women, observing the world with gimlet-eyed glances through the net curtain, gestured at in the luminous slats of a window blind on Hayley Grindle’s set.

Melville performs with such expressive athleticism that it looks like the theatrical equivalent of triple somersaults at the start; we wonder where this curious story is going, and how she is going to keep the energy up. It goes in the direction of the Iphigenia myth, and female sacrifice, but distill our contemporary troubles within it: the library closures, hospital overcrowding and bed-blocking all contain immense human tragedies. Every line brings big, freighted drama and we feel floored.

All its components combine to become bigger than the sum of their parts, from Rachel O’Riordan’s supremely controlled directorial timing (switching from sprint to stillness with the pace of a perfectly choreographed dance) to Owen’s script – a growlingly poetic meditation and call to arms in one. Sam Jones’s sound design brings suspenseful pulses of sound, and the lighting (by Rachel Mortimer with Grindle) dazzles or shocks whenever it needs to.

It is full of paradoxes: a monologue constrained by singularity through its form, which feels peopled by an entire town. And an epic tragedy captured by a white working-class woman with no hint of Vicky Pollard-style satirising despite her scraped-back hair, snarls and street brawls. She is eminently ordinary but exceptional in her heroism, too.

In 2015, a fellow critic at this paper described this play as “perfect theatre”. It is exactly that now. Everyone should see this shattering modern classic. No one will remain unmoved.

Until 22 October.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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