One of my ongoing goals in life is to read about the Greek myths, mainly so I can answer a few more questions on University Challenge. But also so when I see a play based on, or inspired by them, I’ll have a little background knowledge to bring to the theatre. This is where I must admit this hasn’t happened yet. But in some ways, that’s the way I like it. It means I arrive at The Lyric for Iphigenia in Splott with no preconceived ideas about what I’m letting myself in for.
Gary Owen’s play brings the Iphigenia of Greek mythology to modern day Wales. As Effie swaggers onto the stage, she fills the auditorium with personality, bravado and cockiness, and a surprising amount of humour. This is a 75-minute attack on the emotions, as the play follows Effie through the literal highs and catastrophic lows of a few months in her life. From men who cheat and lie, to a system that fails her, bringing about unimaginable grief. It’s a monodrama that demands so much of its star.
Sophie Melville has played the part of Effie before in 2015, when she won The Stage Award for Acting Excellence as well as a nomination for an Evening Standard Award for Best Actress, so it’s no surprise that she dominates the role with incredible power and skill. At first, she seems unlikeable, judging an overweight mother on her local high street and swearing at anyone who dares cross her. But Melville wins the room over soon enough. There’s a raw intensity to her performance. At times almost too much, it’s uncomfortable. Without revealing any spoilers, the final minutes are some of the most horribly heart-breaking you’ll witness on stage.
Owen’s writing is poetic at times, with Melville veering towards rap as emotions intensify. Before coming back down to earth, as Effie addresses you once again. It’s a wonderfully compelling script, demanding yet effortless through Melville’s performance. It’s a script that drives a desire to pour over the words, to better understand how this magic has been put together. At times it’s reminiscent of Kae Tempest’s 2013 ‘Brand New Ancients’ – but it has enough of its own identity to stand alone.
This is the largest stage the play has performed upon, and at times the style of set jars with the decorative Lyric Theatre. It cries out for a black box studio theatre. But despite this, the lighting and sound design successfully contribute to the intensity and power of the performance, which still has impact in this large space. With throbbing bass and strips of light, reminiscent of a Tate Modern installation, the sense of growing unease is never far away.
The final moments of this play are startling. Director Rachel O’Riordan, in her programme note, says “We hope you enjoy the show. I hope you are furious”. As I leave the theatre, I feel torn between tears and anger, a volatile mix of both. Effie is ultimately failed by cuts, by our government not caring about the implications their decisions have on the average citizen. It feels strikingly raw to be watching the show in the current climate, and depressing that it probably felt just as pertinent when first commissioned in 2015. Rachel, you have your wish. I’m fuming.
Written by: Gary Owen
Directed by: Rachel O’Riordan
Design by: Hayley Grindle
Lighting Design by: Hayley Grindle and Rachel Mortimer
Sound Design by: Sam Jones
Produced by: A Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Production.
Originally commissioned and produced by the Sherman Theatre.
Iphigenia in Splott plays at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre until 22 October 2022. More information and bookings can be found here.