Iphigenia In Splott, Gary Owen’s play about a pregnant girl on benefits in council estate Cardiff, at the Traverse Theatre this week, is quite good. It is a solidly-told story of how hard life can be at the bottom of Britain. It makes a case for a better NHS (in case you somehow weren’t aware there are problems in the NHS). It shows that drinking and drugging your way through life isn’t a right laugh.
The problem is not so much with Owen’s play – it makes a fine study of Effie, a girl in trouble. The problem lies with critics and theatregoers in their droves attributing to it qualities it doesn’t have. They don’t think it is merely quite good, they think it’s “a blisteringly powerful indictment of society’s failings.” (The Stage) It’s “the most important play of the moment. Every single politician and civil servant … should be frog-marched to see this show wherever it plays.” (The Herald) It “subtly changes our perception … builds to an explosive finish … seeing the heart torn out of your community and services cut is like having your tongue put out.” (The Guardian) “Who knows how many more [like Effie] are out there?” asks What’s On Stage. We do. And the answer is millions.
There are cuts. We know there are cuts. We know people are affected by these cuts. Real stories far bleaker than Effie’s (not that it’s a competition) are on the TV, in our papers and on our social media news feeds every day (follow Red North and you’ll get one every five minutes).
Who is this play actually teaching and what is it teaching them?
If Ian Duncan Smith and his moral crusading mates saw it, they’d tut and swat it away. “Well, she has one night stands with guys in clubs, what does she expect…?”
If a working class person saw it, they’d be, “What’s the big deal? That’s just like Karen from down the road…”
Regrettably, it will only be liberal, middle-class audiences that go to see this, with a vague sense of being on the morally right side of the debate. Watching it, to me, has the fleeting satisfaction of signing an online petition. That’s not disparaging either online petitions or this play, but we all know that neither action amounts to much.
People I know and respect seem to have been genuinely affected by the play, and that reaction is not to be dismissed. Newspaper critics staring redundancy in the face, arts professionals facing budget cuts are hungry for a play that takes a sword to the government. I want a play that takes a sword to the government, probably more than most. This isn’t it.
What’s missing is the other half of the story, the counterbalance – the developer sitting pretty on the cash he’s made, the rich consultant gynaecologist off to tend to the wife of that property developer, the politician signing off on a budget cut before heading out to a drinks party with local business bigwigs. JK Rowling (as Robert Galbraith), regardless of her opinions in other spheres, at least touched on this with the class-sprawling dramatis personae of The Casual Vacancy.
To be a true modern political timebomb a play would need to unknot in front of us the whole tangled noose the establishment has around our necks – the networks, the directorships, the exploitative contracts.
It would have to broaden its focus beyond the NHS. What about everything else – joblessness, house prices, education – all of which appear, but only fleetingly in supporting roles to the sainted NHS.
It would also have to show that the faultlines in the NHS do not begin and end with this young mother not getting the service she needs. There’s a whole backstory of privatisation, red tape, litigiousness, modern management practices.
In fact, to truly achieve what everyone thinks it does, the play would have to unsettle the very middle class audiences that are gathered there to watch it. Moved house so your little darling’s in a good catchment area? Your ears should burn. Hired a cash-in-hand cleaner from off the estate? Bead of sweat should drip down your neck. Bought yourself a buy-to-let property? Feel that chill of guilt next time you check your bank account.
Give me a play like that. Please someone give me a play like that.
Only then might the ruling class (if they could find their conscience and the entrance to the theatre) see, “oh, it’s us that’s doing that to her“.
Only then might a working class audience (once an enterprising theatre type has bothered to try to get them through the doors) see, “oh, it’s them that’s doing that to us“.
The idea that marching the Tory Cabinet in to watch this play would somehow rock their cosy world, an idea widely espoused by critics and the twitterati, is as deluded as it is fantastical. It would have little more effect than your average episode of Jeremy Kyle. They need to feel like they can’t leave the theatre without being lynched. This would leave them feeling they might get slagged off a bit on twitter.
None of this is the fault of Owen’s play, of course. It’s good storytelling and a worthy subject. The objective I outline above is way too much to achieve in a one-woman, 75 minute play. But that’s my point. Heaping it with a political significance beyond its reach is dangerous. It gives a sense of “job done”. Just because it is about “the issues”, it doesn’t automatically make it “hard-hitting”.
If Iphigenia In Splott is as hard as theatre can hit, no wonder the Tories are getting away with it.