'Iphigenia in Splott' review — Sophie Melville gives a career-defining performance in a ferocious call to arms

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Time has been both kind (if that’s the right word, in this context), but also not to Iphigenia in Splott, the fierce monodrama that I first saw at the National Theatre early in 2016 prior to an onward life that included an improbable engagement Off Broadway: improbable only because one wonders what New Yorkers may have made of the rather, um, unbridled content not to mention an accent unfamiliar to many American ears. Splott is a district of Cardiff, in Wales, unlikely ever to have been previously represented on a New York stage.

And here the 80-minute show is back in all its lippy, full-on energy, directed as before by Rachel O’Riordan who in the intervening years has taken on the artistic directorship of the Lyric Hammersmith, where the piece is now showing – the largest venue it has yet played.

One thing is for sure. The show’s reason for being, Sophie Melville, brings to the solo assignment of the feral Effie a concentrated intensity that is quite something to behold. This sort of identification with a character doesn’t often happen, and Melville can presumably return to this part on an ongoing basis, as Mark Rylance has said he still wants to do with Jerusalem. This is easier to do, too, requiring one actor and a gently distressed set resembling collapsing blinds.

And amidst a culture at large hurtling towards the “eat-or-heat” winter that has by necessity obsessed the nation, it’s increasingly hard to ignore the call to arms that Gary Owen’s play represents — so much so that one feels this time out as if much of the play is merely preparatory to the alarm bells that get resoundingly chimed in time for the bruising final sequence.

The problem, though, at least on this critic’s second viewing, is a narrative that doesn’t stand up to precise scrutiny, alongside the prevailing feeling that Effie is difficult company, as she more or less warns us she will be at the start.

Candid to a fault and possessed of voracious appetites, sexual and otherwise, Effie is an electric presence, to be sure, but also slightly exhausting, especially when you have travelled her grievous journey into the Welsh snow before.

We first see Effie challenging the audience head-on, in a breaking of the fourth wall that Owen, the writer, makes use of when it suits him, largely at moments when Effie is all but throttling the audience by the collar, metaphorically speaking. (That said, one can imagine Melville clambering down from the stage and buttonholing us all individually.)

The sort of marginalised person whom you might cross the street to avoid, Effie is here given a tragic grandeur worthy of her Euripidean forbear — a tragic heroine who was sacrificed so as to make the winds blow whereas the sacrifice of this “stupid slag”, as Effie calls herself, is of a more immediate, less elemental nature.

Protocol dictates that not too much be given away, so that audiences remain alert to the swerves of a narrative that brands Effie a stalker of sorts prior to a coda of involving the NHS that is harrowingly graphic and to which Melville brings a clarion voice that cuts like a knife.

Owen’s Royal Court play Violence and Son makes clear from its very title the tightrope that characters in his plays tend to walk, and one assumes much the same will be true of Romeo and Julie, which has just been announced for a run at the National Theatre early next year.

What’s astonishing here is the self-directed nature of much of the surging bile that makes Effie who she is, even when she lashes out at individuals, and institutions, that fail to do right by her. I wish only that the play concealed rather more neatly its undeniably stirring polemic, so that we remain invested in Effie as a character and not merely a symbol of societal disregard.

At the same time, you won’t want to miss the chance to catch the career-defining impression made by a singular talent who, since she first played Effie, was a notable Portia at Shakespeare’s Globe, amongst various other roles.

It’s often said that some performers don’t so much play a role as inhabit it, and whilst Effie may not represent the most pleasant of places to live, Melville lends her a savage nobility worthy of the Greeks. This actress has surely got a date with destiny with that particular repertoire if and when she wants it, and a scorching modern-day equivalency in the meantime to sear the soul.

Iphigenia in Splott is at Lyric Hammersmith to 22 October. Book Iphigenia in Splott tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Iphigenia in Splott (Photo by Jennifer McCord)

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