Effie talks back to strangers on the street. She subsists on binge drinking and guilting her granny out of spare tenners. Effie is the kind of person you avoid eye contact with but, this time, she’s talking directly to you and you’re going to listen.
Gary Owen’s 2015 script is a message for the typical theatre audience, white, middle and upper class, “comfortable”, and it speaks directly into the gap between the struggling characters depicted on stage and the people who come to consume those stories. Effie (Meg Clarke) prefaces her performance by acknowledging her role as entertainer, but in this show it’s going to be a bit different because, rather than shrugging off the heavy affect of the theatre before returning to your usual life, buoyed by your refined listening skills, Effie explicitly reminds you that her story of struggle is happening all over, everyday. Iphigenia in Splott is about the suffocating social and economic pressure put on working class and impoverished people to maintain capitalism’s status quo, but it refuses to blend into the background and instead asserts an impending change.
Clarke plays Effie in this one-woman production. She is a rough and ready Welsh woman with drug and alcohol dependency and no real plan past her next binge. Then she meets Leigh, has an amazing night, and feels something change irreversibly. Not love, exactly, but pregnancy. And suddenly the centre of her universe has shifted and new possibilities unwind in front of her. But even a baby can’t change everything and Effie can’t escape the relentlessness of poverty, loneliness, and lack of privilege or social and government support.
Clarke is absolutely captivating. She is defiant and fierce in defence of her underlying tenderness. Clarke has expert technique and is directed brilliantly by Lucy Clements in timing punchlines, painting the landscape of people and communities that surround Effie with sincerity, and finding the shimmering emotional beats of the story. Effie is played as tough as they come but leaning towards unpredictable rather than stiff, which only draws the audience deeper in.
Set design by Angela Doherty places Clarke on a pyramid of concrete that is somehow both barren and idolising. Clarke roves across and around the grey surfaces with the ease of someone comfortable with the streets. Then lighting design by Jack Saltmiras and James Smithers, utilising blurred spots to emphasise Effie’s isolation, and the sound design by Chrysoulla Markoulli builds the image of a much larger urban environment surrounding the single story. In particular, the extended soundscape composed by Markoulli that opened the production generated an unnerving atmosphere which lingered.
Owen’s script is geographically and time specific and the direct address could come across as heavy-handed didacticism. But at the same time, there are moments of deeply moving subtly that echo the bookending message on an emotional level, as well. When Effie begins experiencing birthing complications in hospital and has to be transferred, another patient immediately drops their camaraderie to prioritise her own health and safety, supported by the bolstering of her suited partner. This small moment of betrayal clearly demonstrates Owen’s interest in class loyalty but it doesn’t take the additional step of implicating the audience in that betrayal. A direct address to audience disallows shying away from the real-world experiences like Effie’s and the audience’s complicity outside the theatre; cementing the impact of her story as well as envisaging real-world change. For some theatre-makers, the ability for theatre to sow real change is simply the whole point.
Iphigenia in Splott is a well-crafted and even better executed production that emphasises the role of theatre and the unique relationship between a production and its audience. The translation from Welsh working class to Australia isn’t perfect but, more than anything else, Effie is a spark looking to ignite something much larger.
Iphigenia in Splott is running at Flight Path Theatre from November 12th – 21st
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