‘A call to arms’: Sophie Melville returns to furious drama about austerity’s brutal impact

It was her breakout role – and now the actor is starring once more in Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, a play that resonates with her personally and politically

‘It feels even more urgent now,” says actor Sophie Melville of Iphigenia in Splott, the one-woman play she first starred in back in 2015. “More urgent for me and for the UK. It’s a story that people really, really need to hear.”

The story of Iphigenia – the daughter of the Greek general Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra, who was sacrificed to the gods – is transplanted by Welsh playwright Gary Owen to Splott, a deprived area of Cardiff. A damning account of a country gutted by austerity, it takes the form of a monologue narrated by Effie, a gobby young woman who sneers and scoffs at the audience only to break in front of us. The play is brutally effective in depicting the human cost of the cuts and closures, ending on a note of accusatory fury.

Iphigenia in Splott opened in Cardiff’s Sherman theatre in 2015. A successful Edinburgh fringe run followed, before it transferred to the National Theatre’s Temporary Space in 2016 and New York in 2017. The play’s director, Rachel O’Riordan – formerly artistic director of the Sherman, now at the Lyric Hammersmith in London – has been attempting to remount the production for two years, but the plans were repeatedly derailed by Covid-19.

“After the last time we did it, I thought I wouldn’t do it again. But the grip austerity has on the country is even tighter now,” says Melville. “The amount of people using food banks from 2015 to now has doubled. It’s over 2 million now. That’s just horrendous, isn’t it? The gaps are getting bigger.”

While she is excited about returning to the role, she also feels under a bit of pressure because of how well it was received before. “I have to do it justice. I have to not think about what people are going to say about it. I have to knock it out of the park.”

Melville as Portia, with Michael Marcus, in The Merchant of Venice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Melville as Portia, with Michael Marcus, in The Merchant of Venice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Iphigenia in Splott is a play that resonates with Melville on a personal level. Born in 1991, she grew up in Swansea and uses the term “criminal class” to describe her background, saying it best captures her experience. Neither of her parents had much of an education and, growing up, she says, “dreams and aspirations were never a thing that we spoke about”. At 16, she found herself surrounded by people who had a strong idea of what they wanted to do, while she felt lost. “To this day, I don’t really allow myself to dream. I need to unlearn that. Part of me goes: if you dream something too big, you’re just going to have further to fall.”

Owen was inadvertently instrumental in getting her into theatre. Melville was doing a BTec in performing arts but still considered theatre to be something for “people who come from money”. She didn’t think that characters like her existed on stage. Initially she was more interested in dance,but she was encouraged to give acting a go. It was then she read Ghost City by Owen – a series of monologues by people “basically like me” – and it proved revelatory. Reading it, she felt for the first time that she could belong in the industry.

As someone with “quite a lot of trauma growing up”, she found that drama helped her to process things emotionally. She speaks persuasively about the important role that drama can play in education and worries that these days fewer people will have access to that release.

Melville in Mum.
Intense … Melville in Mum at Soho theatre in 2021. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Melville moved to London to continue her studies but found herself working all day long in a waitressing job, living in a horrid flat and feeling lonely. When the audition for Iphigenia came up, she remembers reading the play and “howling”. She knew she had to do it. “It just felt really important. I know that it sounds wanky, but it felt like my calling.” So she got on the coach back to Cardiff and got the job. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since then.”

Since then she has carved out a career for herself in new writing, which is where her passion lies. She performed alongside Erin Doherty – as twins separated at birth, one of whom is raised by a wolf – in Ross Willis’s exuberant two-hander Wolfie at London’s Theatre 503 in 2019. Later came Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s raw, intense play about postpartum depression, Mum, at Soho theatre in 2021. Earlier this year, she played Portia in The Merchant of Venice in the atmospheric, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe. “I’ve never felt magic like it.”

Now she’s returning to her breakout role, seven years on. “I think it is really important to give a voice to people and places that don’t normally get heard … When theatre is specific and absolutely represents what it speaks of, it becomes universal.” While she says the phrase gets thrown around a lot, there is no better way of describing the play than “a call to arms”. It implores its audience to take action. “Come on. Get up. Do something.”


Natasha Tripney

The GuardianTramp

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