By Donna Herman
Don’t worry about knowing the classics, or pronouncing the name. Just go see Iphigenia in Splott by Welsh playwright Gary Owen. It’s currently playing at 59E59 Theatres’ Brits Off Broadway Festival that showcases new British theater. All you need to know is that Splott is a factory community in the town of Cardiff Wales, and Iphigenia’s name in Greek means “strong-born” or “born to strength.” You’ll figure out that last bit quickly enough.
Don’t be fooled by the name of the play, Iphigenia in Splott, into thinking this is anything but a contemporary play. And there’s only one character in this play – our Effie (Sophie Melville) – who is nobody’s poster child for princess. No, Effie has to get herself so pissed of a Sunday she blacks out for a day and has a three day hangover that incapacitates her for most of the week until it’s almost time to do it again. Ah, but don’t think you know Effie. She’s not your ordinary slag. And this is not your typical one character show.
First of all, most one person shows are written by their performers and are, in some fashion, memoirs. Not Iphigenia in Splott. It was written by a proper playwright, Gary Owen, who has written extensively for theater and television in Britain, and won numerous awards, including The UK Theatre Award for Best New Play for Iphigenia in Splott. And secondly, it is performed by a professional actress cast in a role, who gives, possibly, the performance of a lifetime. Sophie Melville is young, so it’s hard to say that she will never top this, but I don’t know how she could.
There are not many 85 minute monologues out there that give an actress the opportunity to run through the gamut of every emotion there is, in such a primal and fearless fashion and leave it all on the stage. Which Ms. Melville does with complete abandon, utter truthfulness and no-holds-barred. She was by turns hysterically funny, horrifying and heartbreaking. I don’t remember breathing or moving from the time she opened her mouth to the time the play was over.
Rachel O’Riordan set a driving pace and her inventive staging kept Effie moving through Hayley Grindle’s spare set of four chairs and flourescent lighting tubes. Aided by Rachel Mortimer’s elegant lighting, she enabled the action to flow effortlessly from place to place unencumbered by unnecessary physical sets or props. We saw everything through Effie’s mind’s eye, and that was more than sufficient to see clearly. The only bar to understanding was Ms. Melville’s Welsh accent which took a few minutes to get used to in the beginning.
The writing too, was superb, crisp and crackling, and never going down the obvious paths. In the end, it speaks as much to an American audience as a British one. However much we like to think we cut the cord over 200 years ago, and figured out a better system, it seems that the people of Britain and the people of America are plagued by the same problems today. And the leaders of both countries are reacting in the same manner. In the end, it’s actually a stirring cry for revolution. Or a warning.
Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, Directed by Rachel O’Riordan
WITH: Sophie Melville (Effie)
Designer, Hayley Grindle; Lighting Designer, Rachel Mortimer; Sound Designer, Sam Jones; Casting Director, Kay Magson, CDG; Company Stage Manager, Charlotte Unwin; AEA Stage Manager, Veronica Aglow. Presented by Sherman Theater, Cardiff Wales. Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theater, Theater B. Through Sunday, June 4th. For tickets visit www.59e59.org or call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200. The theater is located at 59 East 59th Street between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue. Running time is 85 minutes without an intermission.