In-yer-face Effie is hard as nails and makes no apologies for it. Life may be for living, but in the Welsh town of Splott you survive any which way you can. Usually by way of a three day hangover to help you forget until you can numb yourself all over again. A little weed, a little shagging, and a whole lot of alcohol, survival has a rhythm and Effie’s getting through the days. Until one night at a club, as she’s talking the talk and walking the walk, a glance at a squaddie across a crowded room causes her to stumble. And in that fall a crack appears letting the light through. In Reality: Check Productions presentation of the award winning “Iphigenia in Splott” by Welsh playwright Gary Owen, one woman draws the line on political indifference, warning this far and no further to Governments failing to care for those in their care. A rallying call, a threat, a self sacrificing hero, or a self righteous martyr, “Iphigenia in Splott” might oversell its tale of a saviour dismissed as a slag, but Rachel O’Connell’s one woman performance bullies its way into your mind, leaving an unforgettable indent, once Effie slips free of a sanitised narrative distance.
Referencing the Greek myth of Iphigenia, sacrificed to the Gods on the eve of the Trojan War to ensure success for her father Agamemnon, “Iphigenia in Splott” takes the notion of female sacrifice and transposes it to a contemporary, disadvantaged, working class context. One where women of seventy still need to find a job, where mothers wait for hours to see overworked doctors, where the lack of hospital beds and available midwives can prove catastrophic. Despite many shared experiences, efforts to suggest an Irish context don’t really land, with returning soldiers looking uneasily British against overt references to euros. Yet returning soldiers serve to remind that it's not just women who suffer when Governments fail to properly govern. Owen casts his net to include young men numbed into indifference from a lack of hope, or mangled in wars to be discard once they’ve served their usefulness. And then there's the needs of children, who endure the cruellest fate of all.
Reality: Check Productions take on Owen’s acerbic script frequently hits a lot of highs. Set designer Fenna Von Hirschhedyt’s simple subversion of the Smock Alley Boy School space delivers a superb turnaround, with the interplay of scaffolding and platforms creating multiple, sometimes momentary spaces infused with the cold touch of steel. Something John Gunning’s blue dominated lighting design superbly reinforces whilst also adding depth and texture at key moments. Likewise Jenny O’Malley’s subtle sound design, laying down an underlying backing track of street sounds which beautifully accentuate without dominating. The musical soundtrack, however, often overstates itself, making a hard working Rachel O’Connell work even harder to be heard at times.
Compositionally, director Tracy Ryan does a smashing job crafting some strong images, moving O’Connell about the space in fluid, perfectly paced sequences, using height and distance to terrific effect. Yet performatively, Ryan sometimes restricts O’Connell too much to her narrative responsibilities. With O’Connell’s Effie often focused on telling rather than showing her story, and she tells it very well, Effie’s visceral in-your-face immediacy can become diluted as a result, with events often feeling steeped in hindsight rather than immediacy. All of which serves to rein O’Connell in at times, making her seem safer than she should be. For, like Effie, O’Connell is a firecracker waiting to be lit, and in those moments when she slips the reins and ignites, she kisses you and kisses you and kisses you into being wholly there with her. Moments you don't relive after the event but share in the visceral there and then of. Indeed, if O’Connell occasionally fizzes and flares, those moments when she finally flames she could burn the whole world down.
If “Iphigenia in Splott” could be said to deal in girl power, then Effie is Scary Spice dressed like Sporty Spice who won’t play nice if pushed. And she’s close to breaking point, capturing a political attitude currently gaining traction across many social classes today. For what’s truly scary is that as we begin to slide towards 2019, almost four years later, the issues highlighted in “Iphigenia in Splott” have deteriorated further. Issues like homelessness or the health services aren’t just unresolved, they’ve been exacerbated. Indeed, if Iphigenia provides Effie with her central metaphor, Effie as Joan of Arc rallying from the ramparts, or as Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading The People, would work equally as well. This French connection being particularly resonant in light of recent protests in Paris. Whatever your political feelings, when it comes to “Iphigenia in Splott,” there's one thing most will agree on; O’Connell bravely delivers a wonderfully moving, politically challenging, and powerfully unsettling experience. Prepare to be shaken out of your comfort zone.
“Iphigenia in Splott” by Gary Owen, presented by Reality: Check Productions runs at Smock Alley Theatre until December 15.
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre.