Viewers of a right wing disposition look away now. Oh wait, this is about a pregnant working class unemployed teenager: you already are.
Gary Owen’s script is the best kind of proof that stories we’ve seen before and forms we think are familiar can be extraordinarily, grippingly new. Not only is this a drastic retelling of an ancient myth, the story of Iphigenia, adapted innumerably but it’s almost soap opera fare – a young girl up the duff, will she/won’t she keep the kiddy? But to experience the play gives no hint of cliche. Rather than seeming worn or tired or overfamiliar – as a monologue about accidental pregnancy in a deprived town so easily could – Iphigenia In Splott is fierce and fresh and urgent. Actually, properly urgent.
Sophie Melville is Effie, who lives in Splott, a rundown town near Cardiff. She lives with a destructive flatmate and she disdains her grandmother. Melville almost dances her performance as this seething pot, unpredictable and ready always to boil over. She masks her face with a scowl.
Despite being in a relationship, she has a one night stand with a wounded soldier and becomes pregnant. She sees the damage in him, and it’s her damage too. His may be more visible and physical, but hers is there. In each other they’ve found healing and nurture. Aside from the occasional shout, Melville’s performance is calm and quiet but so completely captivating.
At first Effie is the cruel one, and as it goes on it becomes clear that it’s the world that’s cruel. When the pool she swims in gets shut down. When she has to get a bus to the hospital at 7 months pregnant. Effie is, like Iphigenia, a young girl destroyed by circumstances beyond her control; circumstances decided by men, who remove all agency from her.
In fact, it’s precisely to do with female agency: she has the agency to sleep with another man and she has the agency to choose an abortion or not. Where she doesn’t have agency, and where it’s being taken away from women – particularly young, single, poor and disabled mothers – is in choosing where the welfare state gets destroyed.
This woman–this girl–whose life has been ruined by austerity and an uncaring government, which breeds an uncaring society, is an emblem of choice: between taking the individual responsibility that every person can take to care for others, or to remain blind and to remain selfish and to live out the solipsism that’s encouraged in us.
Towards the end, with the hints of anger and frustration at an increasingly unjust society bubbling away as an undercurrent, an (anti)political message starts to shed its subtlety and emerge full force. The swimming pool that shut down, the bus ride to the hospital, the paucity of midwives, the lack of hospital beds: they were hints for the audience to pick up, now laid bare in a way that almost doesn’t trust its audience to have picked up on them. But something like 30 seconds into the heavy handed diatribe against a swingeing society and that heavy hand is more than justified. It’s pure vitriol against a pathetic regime that simply has no idea of how it’s destroying the lives of so many. Or if it does and it’s doing it anyway, well that’s got to be worse.
It’s not us the audience that the play doesn’t trust, it’s the whole rotten system. Effie is forced by the writer no longer to be a person, just as the government forces people no longer to be people by denying them dignity and security and trust. But Effie doesn’t just become a statistic: she becomes a symbol. Like Iphigenia, she’s a symbol for the squabbles of men and the awful things they do in the name of victory and in the throes of ignorance. Agamemnon, more than he’s ever been, is ‘The Man’ blindly and hubristically taking the lives of others into his own hands. Iphigenia is the daughter of the state sacrificed for something as trivial as wind or as arbitrary as austerity. And so in that ending, when those subtleties are laid bare, it doesn’t matter if it explains the play in full deus ex style. What matters is that it blazes with an incandescent anger. It blazes and it hurts to be burnt.
“I can’t speak,” Effie says as contractions silence her with pain, “and there’s no-one to speak for me.” A small line in the play that says everything.