Iphigenia Takes on the World at the Lyric Hammersmith

Sophie Melville as Iphigenia in Splott
Sophie Melville as Iphigenia in Splott. Image Jennifer McCord

Iphigenia in Splott

From: 26 Sep 2022

To: 22 Oct 2022

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Lyric Square
King St
W6 0QL

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‘You are in my debt.’ Effie’s opening line is a spear, fired directly into the audience. At first, it seems like a premonition to what we are about witness – the most shattering monologue on stage in London today. Then Iphigenia in Splott unravels, and we see the reality is altogether more complex.

Writer Gary Owen draws on Greek mythology in title and form, retelling the story of Iphigenia, a woman seemingly sacrificed for the greater good of society, whose death ultimately served as mere entertainment for the gods. Sophie Melville’s Effie hails instead from Splott, a real working class area of Cardiff – and one now subject to gentrification. 

Instead of confining the story of this ordinary woman to the domestic, Owen casts Effie as a heroine, a powerful being with agency. She regales her captive audience with her Heraclean highs and lows, downing jugs of self-spiked Vodka Martinis in the face of angry bar managers, hours passed in drug-fuelled sex, else viscerally vomiting beneath the table of a Chicken Club. 

Sophie Melville as Iphigenia in Splott
Image Jennifer McCord

Though a one-woman performance, Melville populates the stage (bare, bar three chairs and backlighting) with vivid portrayals of the characters in her community. Through Effie’s eyes, we see boyfriend Kev (the ‘dog’ to her goddess) and retired soldier Lee, conquested in the local nightclub.

What begins as light-hearted quickly descends, the audience’s roaring laughter increasingly dark, then silent. The plot is unfortunately predictable – Effie’s warm sense of feeling ‘not alone’ after meeting Lee is misplaced, not as falling in love, but falling pregnant. 

It is phenomenally well-written. Each character is afforded complexity, full individuals rather than caricatures or stereotypes. We see Effie simultaneously judge her privileged theatre audience, and the ‘fat mother’ strolling her street, wearing leggings which fade from black to grey with wear, without the slightest contradiction. 

There’s romance, but nothing romantic or nostalgic about her narrative. Wounded by an IED in the field, Lee is first insecure about revealing his leg; Effie curses herself for first calling it ‘beautiful’, an easy and gentle lie, of something that necessarily ugly and reflective of humanity’s own ‘soft’ vulnerability as creatures. Her own life is passed in a succession of hangovers and comedowns, ways of coping with her being filled with ‘all this energy and fuck all to do with it’. 

It’s a breathless 75 minutes, leaping between slow realisations and the fastest spoken-word I’ve ever seen outside of rap – one which reaches its crescendo when Effie realises she is pregnant. ‘I have to live like an athlete,’ Melville admits in a post-show Q&A with Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan. (Following Judi Dench’s example. the remarks ‘you must be exhausted!’ and ‘how do you remember all those lines?’ are banned.)

There’s a Shakespearean rhythm baked into the script, to which the pair bring their own backgrounds in dance and choreography. Rachel Mortimer and Hayley Grindle’s lighting complements the performance, pulsing as a nightclub dance floor, then looming with the two lines of a positive pregnancy test. Sam Jones’ music design subtly punctuates the plot, with a nod to American band The National at the end.

Sophie Melville as Iphigenia in Splott
Image Jennifer McCord

All coarse ‘cerners’, Melville’s accent seems to draw as much from Hazey’s Packs and Potions as her own experience coming of age in the Splott of Swansea. ‘Every town and city has its equivalent,’ she says. It’s another of the play’s countless strengths – beyond representation, to connects to people whose lived experiences are different to its protagonist.

Indeed, watching Iphigenia is a collective experience, and it is entertainment, not polemic. ‘Theatre has no business lecturing people,’ says O’Riordan, but it has great political power – something she was acutely aware of practising in Ireland.

Quick comparators should note that it’s more Prima Facie than Fleabag, but though a monologue, Effie’s story is much less individual. We learn that we are in her debt because of her harrowing personal sacrifices – her greatest when she decides to save her local hospital money by not pressing legal charges when her child dies prematurely, due to understaffing. 

Sophie Melville as Iphigenia in Splott
Image Jennifer McCord

Iphigenia speaks to how those who have the least in society silently carry the majority, and are doubly marginalised by this responsibility, and their derogatory judgement. But what will happen when they can’t take it anymore? 

On its debut in 2015, Iphigenia sought to show the lived reality of Conservative government austerity in Wales – shut down swimming pools, ransacked public services, and understaffed healthcare services. In its national tour the subsequent year, and Berlin and New York residencies thereafter, it received a similar reaction – indicating how it speaks to something universally wrong with our politics. 

This play shouldn’t be needed, nor relevant. But in the face of the cost of living crisis, it is even more so than ever before. The Lyric is five times larger than the 90-seat Sherman Theatre, where Iphigenia began what will be a deservedly long life. And necessarily so – for its timely return, and for one of the easiest standing ovations of the year.

Images Jennifer McCord.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (Twitter: @jelsofron) for this review; their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms.

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