Iphigenia in Splott: The ‘hit of the festival’ in Avignon
You don’t get much bigger in the world of theatre than France’s Avignon Festival. And you don’t get much rawer than the anger that boils in its poor neighbourhoods, exactly the anger that also drives the visceral script of Gary Owen’s play Iphigenia in Splott.
Effie, for whom this small bit of Cardiff is her world, lays her life story on the line, inciting us in a rapid-fire riff of words to share her rage at the fate of those whose destinies are the plaything of forces they do not control.
Many may not know the plot of Owen’s play, but they know of Effie’s story: poverty and despair never quite crushing the hopes and dreams of those in neglected communities as their services, whether public or private, slip bit by bit into the abyss being dug by those who promote austerity.
Effie, the only character on stage, hurls her voice and beating heart in the faces of those tightening the belt of every budget they can lay their hands on, those who wish she just did not exist.
Amid the drinking and the casual sex, Effie finds what she hopes will be real love, only it crumbles away. Going into premature labour, she loses the baby that moment gave her.
In the snow, the ambulance cannot make it to the only properly equipped hospital, way off in Abergavenny.
She starts a complaint, but decides that individual compensation will only mean more cuts for others. How much longer, she cries out in her final tempest of words, are we all going to take this?
This is the third time the play has had a run in France and the second time it has been staged at Avignon. Now, as a proud manager of the theatre company concerned, Théâtre de Poche in Brussels, told me: “It’s the hit of the Festival!” And rightly so.
In Gary Owen’s hands, Effie becomes a universal champion, the crucible of Splott’s handful of streets becomes every poor neighbourhood in Europe.
As Gwendoline Gauthier, who plays Effie in this Avignon revival, told me, “She’s a modern fighter the likes of which one does not often see on the stage.”
To get the feel of the place in preparation for the role, Gwendoline had visited Splott and wandered down to the Cardiff seashore.
“Everything was there as Effie describes in the script. But I could not stop thinking of neighbourhoods in the city where I now live, Liège in Belgium, like Cardiff built on coal in the past.
“To be an actor, as someone once said, is to be an emotional athlete, to be able to take Effie from despair to anger, in a way that makes sure both engage the audience. She needs me to be fit enough to deliver the energy of her drama and the violence of a tragedy that does not break her.
“I saw quickly that this very personal text was also very political. It shows us how politics is not a matter of abstract philosophy or idle debate, but that it has direct consequences for people’s lives, for their physical and mental condition, for how long they may live.”
Politics has been big in France this year with millions on strike or in the streets over President Macron’s drive to add two years to people’s working lives.
The trade unions repeatedly pointed out that at the bottom end, in Effie’s part of French society, that means that more will die before they can enjoy retirement, such is the growing inequality in the country in living standards and in health.
Within its ancient walls, Avignon must surely have more theatres than there are across all of Wales. One of them is run by France’s militant trade union confederation, the CGT, in its Avignon premises, an old convent loaned by the city council.
For the 77 editions of the Festival, the confederation has always had a seat on its administrative council, a role that started when the film star Jean-Paul Belmondo was leading the CGT entertainment section.
The union’s departmental secretary, Frédéric Laurent, is also director of this little theatre. “The media promotes an image of the CGT that is just one of fights and demos,” he told me.
“But we play our part in promoting culture, and the political returns for the CGT are very important. Outside of Avignon, this region is now dominated by the extreme right of Marine Le Pen. Avignon itself has a socialist mayor and I can’t help thinking that this is partly because of the way the theatre in the city involves people in debate.”
For Le Pen, as for Macron, what France needs is “order” and “authority”, the theme of the month in the wake of the troubles across France after the police shot dead 17-year-old Nahel on 27 June in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.
Just beyond the council flats where he lived is a huge theatre, Théâtre des Amandiers that I go to often. People from those flats help pay the taxes that subsidise the theatre but are rarely present in its audiences.
This September, it will be staging a drama, Oasis Love, exploring why young people like Nahel in Nanterre flee whenever the police appear.
Sonia Chiambretto, the dramatist, has explored with that youth, the ambiguous relationship between people and those in authority for whom “it is as if enabling people to speak is already to start a riot”.
In French “riot” is “émeute” which has the same root as “emotion”, a thought that Chiambretto takes as her starting point, the emotion of those for whom the ruling politics makes life harder, one way or another, the emotion Effie refuses to suppress.
Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, where Gary Owen writes and Effie first cried out in her riot of words back in 2015, is marking its 50th anniversary this year.
At the time, and only a step away from the new theatre, a very simple question was asked by some students: “Why can’t learning disabled people live in the community with a bit more support and help?”
On the Sherman stage as Housemates this October, their answer has become the world-wide primary form of learning disability social care.
As one involved puts it: “It is a story of access to opportunity, of the right to make decisions for ourselves, of freedom, rebellion and inclusion.”
Just the argument Effie has been inspiring audiences in Avignon with.
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