Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 25: Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott (2015)
I read Owen’s contemporary reworking of the Greek play earlier this year, knowing I was busy when the tour came to my nearest theatre and so couldn’t go to see it. It’s exhilarating and funny and yet makes you furious at local cuts.
Last year I read David Lindsay Abaire’s Good People. The two are very different plays: Owen’s is set in Wales and Lindsay Abaire’s is set in America. Good People made its UK premiere in a starry production in Hampstead followed by a West End run, whereas Iphigenia in Splott played mostly small venues, started as a fringe play and has a cast of one. But there are similarities between the two. Lindsay Abaire subverts the American play and gives us a female protagonist who is a single mother, struggling to pay the rent, who loses her job, and who barely copes to look after her disabled daughter. She is not one of life’s winners. And yet she has a huge amount of wit and warmth and is determined to do good for her daughter as well as not take money from her ex-partner. She plays church bingo to help get a bit more money.
Effie, in Owen’s play, is unemployed and unqualified. She goes on unbelievable drinking benders, has one night stands and is the sort of person you’d perhaps cross the road to avoid. Like Margie in Good People, where Effie lives doesn’t offer much hope because it is run down. The bingo hall is burnt down, the swimming pool is closed, shops are shutting, as is the library. It’s a dump. Owen takes us on a bit of a tour of her life, meeting people who are also unemployed or injured from the war, or struggling to scrape through their lives. Effie is stuck in a destructive cycle of binging. And then she is offered hope after a one night stand with an amputated ex-serviceman. She suddenly thinks that he can give her life purpose by looking after him, but even this is soon taken away from her. She becomes pregnant but loses her baby in an accident which is the hospital’s fault. This is where the Greek myth aspect of the play becomes apparent. Effie decides not to sue so as to ensure that much-needed money isn’t taken away from the hospital. She suffers so that others don’t have to. If you were going to look into the technicalities of compensation, then this ending may seem contrived but nonetheless the message is enduring. And what’s more, even though this small town is a bit of a dump, the people there all manage. But what if one day, Effie asks turning the question to the audience, they couldn’t cope?
This play is dazzling. Owen put centre stage a person who is not often seen in theatre. She is provocative and fills the stage. The text is in verse; the language is sparse but effective and it evokes clearly her world and the voices of those around her. It’s fresh and poetic and exhilarating and imaginative. I hope it tours again or something because it is such an important and powerful play, bursting with energy and full of thoughts, hitting hard at budget cuts in contemporary society and shining a light on those often forgotten in the margins of society. It’s easily one of my favourite plays I’ve read this year and highly recommended.