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Sophie Melville and Rachel O'Riordan - Iphigenia in Splott

Sophie Melville was on a train on Valentine's Day when she started reading about what UK Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt was doing to the NHS. After negotiations broke down between the Westminster government and the British Medical Association, Hunt had decided to impose contracts on junior doctors without any further discussion. It was perhaps no coincidence that the Swansea born actress was in London to perform Iphigenia in Splott, Gary Owen's devastating reimagining of Greek tragedy in working class Cardiff, where the cuts caused by imposed austerity are biting deep.

Travelling through umpteen districts of London both rich and poor, Melville grew angry enough to try and capture the Secretary of State for Health's attention with a tweet.

'I'm inviting you to see #Iphigenia in Splott @NationalTheatre this week,” she wrote to Hunt's account. 'Come learn what the #NHSmeans to the majority.'

And the result?

“He didn't bloody come, did he?” Melville says, sounding both aghast and resigned to the silence. “I knew what Jeremy Hunt was saying, and I was bloody furious, and I thought, I've got to do something, and I sent it on a whim, really.”

Hunt may not have responded, but Melville's message was retweeted 112 times, while it also garnered the priceless comment from actor Dominic Brewer that getting Hunt into a theatre at all would have been a coup given that 'it was hard enough when he was Culture Secretary.'

Rachel O'Riordan's production of Iphigenia in Splott for the Cardiff-based Sherman Cymru company was first seen in Edinburgh during the final week of the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It returns this week for three nights only at the city's Traverse Theatre, with Melville as Effie, a roaring girl who drinks, drugs and shags her way to noisy oblivion.

As a portrait of a twenty-first century underclass whose grabbed-at pleasures come as a result of what looks very much like terminal disenfranchisement, it is devastating enough. By the end of the play, however, failed by the services she used to be entitled to, Effie looks very much like a revolutionary heroine who isn't going to take it anymore.

Iphigenia in Splott was one of the first plays developed by Rachel O'Riordan when she arrived in Sherman Cymru following her three years revitalising Perth Theatre.

“Gary was under commission, but he hadn't written anything yet,” says O'Riordan, “but when he did I thought it was extraordinary. From day one it felt complete. I had my mum staying with me when I read it, and I left it on the kitchen table when I went out, and my mum read it and was raving about it.”

When the play opened in Cardiff, Melville's family were equally impressed

“I'm a working class girl from an area in Swansea that's sort of similar to Splott,” she says, “which makes me even more desperate to say what I do in the play. My grandad works for the Socialist Party in Wales, and he keeps saying to me that I'm doing what he does, but in a different way. We opened the day after the General Election, and it felt relevant then, but now with everything that's going on it feels even more so.”

This was the case too when Sherman Cymru brought the play to Edinburgh. After the first performance, O'Riordan was standing at a traffic island when she noticed a disorientated young man on the other side of the road. The man was barefoot and unkempt, and it wasn't clear if he was trying to cross the road, if he was begging, or if he knew where he was. When O'Riordan spoke to him, he said something about wanting to get to Dundee, though he didn't have any money to get there.

“That's the sort of people who the play's about,” she says. “People who slip through the net and aren't looked after. I think the play means a lot in that way, and I think the things it says, for a lot of young people, and for all of us, this stuff needs to be said. I think we're in danger of doing serious damage to the generation after us in terms of what's happening in education. We're narrowing possibilities.

“Someone like my father, who came from a working class family, was able to educate himself and have what we now call social mobility. He was able to change, and have a very different life to his parents. There was a potential to develop great minds that isn't there anymore.”

In terms of the play's observations about the NHS, it should perhaps be pointed out that it was a former Minister of Health, the late post World War Two Labour MP Anuerin Bevan, who birthed the NHS. That Bevan was Welsh may be of some comfort to those behind Iphigenia in Splott, but the play's urgency increases by the day.

“It's an incredible zeitgeist moment,” O'Riordan says. “The play isn't just about the NHS, but the whole ethos behind the NHS, that the fit and able can support and look after those who aren't fit an able, what an extraordinary and wonderful moment that was when it was set up.

In the play, at least, what is seen as an attack on basic services in a remarkable piece of theatre on every level becomes a call to arms, so that Effie becomes politicised by default. In real life, however, can Iphigenia in Splott change anything beyond the four walls of the theatre auditorium?

“Of course it can,” says Melville emphatically. “Just getting people talking or thinking about it is something.”

O'Riordan agrees.

“This is what is really significant about the arts,” she says. “It does make a difference. It really does. Theatre shifts things, and it refreshes the human condition.”

Melville brings such notions even closer to home.

“It's about not judging people,” Melville says. “Effie plays on that, and she really winds people up, but why doesn't she deserve an education? Why doesn't she get to go in an ambulance? Why is it only people who have money that have these things?”

Last week, Melville sent another tweet, not to Jeremy Hunt, but in response to a link to the widely shown video of Tory MPs in the House of Commons heckling UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn while others rocked with noisy laughter. Melville added just one word above it. “Arseholes,” she wrote.

Melville is a keen supporter of the 50/50 Campaign for gender balance in all institutions regarding employment, including the theatre.”

“It's about equality,” she says, “and that applies to gender, race and class. It's about being equal. That's what Iphigenia in Splott is about. Equality for everyone.”

Iphigenia in Splott, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 3-5.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, March 1st 2016

ends

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