Review: Iphigenia in Splott (Skipping Stones Theatre)
The amount of room you keep free for people you don’t like says a lot about you. How far from your views on politics, sex and gender, religion, life and death can you wander, curious and receptive, before you won’t hear another word, regardless of who might be speaking, and what they may have been through?
If said space is expansive, your capacity for empathy is likely just as generous. If it’s a little tight, you may find it easy to dismiss other people’s life choices and life plans, except for a chosen few whose ideologies reflect the world you want to see.
Enter Skipping Stones Theatre, a Toronto collective dedicated to storytelling that aims to create/expand/entice your appetite for neurodiversity and understanding of mental health. Their latest, an adaptation of Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, is a solo show best described as an exercise in social change by catharsis.
Our lone protagonist, Effie, played by Breanna Maloney, is a poor, heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed and promiscuous woman for whom mainstream British society has little room to spare. She is a reference to U.K. austerity measures from the mid-2010s that spawned the politically fabricated and widely popularized notion that those most affected by the cuts – the poor and the mentally unwell – were to blame for their misfortunes.
Effie’s brashness, initially off putting in a punk middle finger kind of way, very quickly shifts into a shield between her and the outside world as we learn more about her obstacles and motivations. Her best medicine for what the highs of sex and drunkenness fail to numb – limited job prospects, unreliable social services – is a ‘fuck you’ to whoever’s within earshot. Passivity and acquiescence are no balm for a systemic lack of opportunity, one where those who can walk to a decent life have been swayed by those in power to expect her to grow wings and take flight there, and look down on her for not being able to.
Her abundance of self-preserving volume and aggression, set against her borderline-naive eagerness to feel and be understood, gradually saturated my headspace with her humanity, such that I could see the impact of it cleansing a narrow-minded patron of their belief that people like Effie are unworthy of their aspirations. At the very least, Maloney’s work does a lot of the heavy lifting in that direction, true to the company’s mandate. This is the social change the play is crafted to induce, by force of feeling, yes, waves upon waves of it, but also plenty of humor stemming from Effie’s blunt retorts, and a number of poetic conceits that elevate the whole work for me into the kind of theatre that endures because it not only represents the underrepresented, but does it with a sense of craft. One of these conceits, the superhero-ish ramifications of certain people being in Effie’s debt, is worth more in enchantment than the price of admission.
The play’s aforementioned exercise develops more organically than I’m making it sound. I slowly let go of self-awareness at the mercy of Effie’s tireless, expletive-laced tirades as space-time might be constricted by a favorite song. She says and does as she likes, while having mastered, by the precarities of her situation, the essential survival skill of not caring what most people think of her. She pursues what she wants, fearlessly and shamelessly, and when she is afraid or ashamed, she is able to stride through the flames of it accepting her flaws with open arms. All of this equals a mesmerizing character, and outside of the theatre, a human being with incredible potential. This is why Effie’s succession of tragedies, many of which she is basically fated to endure, stun as effectively as they do, and are liable to slide the ground from beneath your feet to make you revisit who’s deserving of your good graces.
Lighting Designer, Chin Palipane and Movement Consultant, Alice Cavanagh are adept at maximizing the intimacy of the moment, while also offering a sense of structure with their choices to this otherwise starkly presented play. The starkness, of course, is intentional, with Director Sean O’Brien astutely aware that Effie will more than capably fill up the almost bare stage on her own. Combined with Maloney’s gift for bringing not only Effie but her whole community to life with but one body to work with, Iphigenia in Splott manages to break through its U.K. confines with a deeply felt portrayal of social inequality and the colossal strength required to climb out of it.
The show runs until July 17th as part of Toronto Fringe. Ticket info here.