Sunday, May 14, 2017

7. (2017-2018): Review: IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT

"A Gift from the Greeks"


So, what’s Splott? It’s an historic district in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. The singer Shirley Bassey grew up there. And who’s Iphigenia? She’s a daughter of the ancient Greek king Agamemnon, the subject of two fifth-century B.C. plays by Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Taurus. According to the myth, she was about to be sacrificed by her father at Aulis to calm the angry goddess Artemis so the Greeks could cross to Troy when the deity replaced her at the last minute with a deer. She was whisked to safety in Tauris, where she became a priestess and was forced to ritually sacrifice uninvited foreigners. 
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Iphigenia in Aulis (last revived locally in 2015 by the CSC) has been a gift for composers, filmmakers, and playwrights, who've adapted it for their mediums, the plays including recent ones by Caridad Svich, Charles L. Mee, and, in the present case, Gary Owen’s absorbing Iphigenia in Splott. Apart from its title, however, it mentions neither Splott nor Iphigenia. Now playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of their Brits Off Broadway season, it stars Sophie Melville in the searing performance that gained her acclaim following the play’s premiere at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre before it played to sold-out houses in Edinburgh and at England’s National Theatre.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Very little in Owen’s play will remind you of why he calls it as he does. It’s not until the end, when the heroine makes a noble sacrifice that you may realize the connection, since, in Euripides’ play, Iphigenia, in agreeing to be slain so the Greeks can sail, chooses the general good over her own desire to live. The choice in Iphigenia in Splott is a big one also intended for the general good but it’s more mundane, as is the entire environment in which the action transpires.

Owen’s Iphigenia is Effie, a good-looking but reckless young Cardiff woman carrying on as an impoverished, ballsy, love-starved, nasty, foul-mouthed, working-class, booze-lapping, drug-addled slut. Or, at least that’s how we may initially think of her, a view she emphasizes as she tells a story that ultimately reveals the inadequacy of our first impressions.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Wearing leopard-spotted leggings and a sleeveless, knit top under a gray hoodie, her blonde hair pulled up in a knot, Effie tells her story as she reenacts it, speaking directly to us in a Welsh accent as thick as shepherd pie. We’re told at the start that what we assume is the “stupid slag, nasty skank” before us has us in her debt and that she’s come to collect on it.

She then launches (perhaps spews is more accurate) an account of her crummy life in a rapidly declining community, where she shares a flat with another young woman; her drinking binges and their follow-up puking and hangovers; her sex life with her fond but oafish boyfriend, Kev, musclebound from the waist up but with legs like cheese straws; her one-night hookup with Lee, a soldier who lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan; her falling in love with him and what happened when he knocked her up and broke her heart; and the healthcare tragedy stemming from budgetary cutbacks that led to the surprising sacrifice for which she claims we (or, at least, the British public) owe her big time.

The ending, which suddenly turns the play into a tract against funding reductions in the social welfare safety net, serves the purpose of making Effie an unexpected, even revolutionary heroine but it comes so quickly and with such point that it can’t avoid the reek of propaganda. At this time of preoccupation with national healthcare, it’s instructive to hear about the UK’s NHS problems; however, for an American audience, a version of this play aimed at the projected results of repeal and replace might have been more explosive.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Owen’s writing is potent, vivid, profane, and illuminated by verbal and physical variations that allow Melville to range from nasty to angry to aggressive to vulnerable to sweet to pathetic to cocky in a split second. The agile, quicksilver actress brings an emotional arsenal to Effie that fills every nook and cranny not only with fiercely human feeling but with piercing shafts of humor.

O’Riordan moves Effie like a restless leopard around the three red chairs in Hayley Grindle’s black box set, its perimeter lined with tubular fluorescent lights, with a standing installation of horizontal fluorescents looking like a crumbling venetian blind, brought fascinatingly to life in Rachel Mortimer’s brilliant lighting scheme. Underscoring Effie’s monologue is Sam Jones’s wonderfully subtle soundscape of thrumming, percussion, and other effects.

Sophie Melville’s stage creds were put even more to the test the night I attended. Around five minutes before the final curtain, when the dramatic tension was building steadily, a man in the second row and seated near the audience left wall of Theater B, where there’s no aisle, broke the mood by suddenly rising and struggling to get out. Long story short, he was trying to get help for his companion, a young woman having a health issue. As an usher bustled about in the row, the valiant actress did her best to continue.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
At last, the house lights popped on, the stage manager came running down the center aisle from the rear of the house, and the performance was suspended until the woman could be removed. The house manager apologized and, after five more minutes, the show resumed, with Melville amazingly picking up at the same emotional level she’d been at when the interruption occurred.

Just as British society owed a debt to Effie’s fictional sacrifice, the audience at this play owed Sophie Melville something for her real one. Needless to say, they paid it back with love.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC

Through June 4

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