The human cost of austerity: Iphigenia in Splott

The human cost of austerity: Iphigenia in Splott

United Kingdom, 2015. For the last five years the British government has been led by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition whose greatest achievement to date has been implementing a programme of austerity measures. This delivered the biggest cuts to state spending since World War II, to public services such as the National Health Service, welfare and funding for local councils, along with plans to close 900,000 public sector jobs by 2018.

The government’s stated intention was to “stimulate economic growth” following the recession of 2007-8; in practice it caused the closure of almost 800 public libraries, three times as many children needing food banks, and double the number of people sleeping on the streets as social housing was replaced with “affordable” homes barely cheaper than market rates. 

This period also sees politicians championing divisive, Victorian-era rhetoric splitting the nation into the deserving and undeserving, revamped for the modern era in Chancellor George Osborne’s repeated allusions to “shirkers vs. workers”. 

Against this backdrop, the curiously named play Iphigenia in Splott was conceived. In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, who he sacrifices to placate the goddess Artemis after offending her. In the modern play written by Gary Owen, Iphigenia becomes Effie, a young girl from a Welsh town called Splott, who delivers a 75-minute monologue with swagger and occasional fury as she describes a cycle of daytime boredom and nightly drinking. Society views her as a “dirty slag” she tells us, and with a lack of employment or much to do there is little chance of escaping. 

Fast forward to October 2022. The world may have hopped from crisis to crisis in recent times, but the UK has seemingly dived into the abyss. With a stated aim to “stimulate economic growth”, the government has announced plans to cut taxes, remove caps on bankers’ bonuses, restart fracking and dismantle regulation, tanking the economy in a matter of hours and leading experts to predict that millions more people will plunge into poverty this winter. 

Revived with the same gut-punching performance by Sophie Melville as Effie, the play’s creators could not have predicted how much worse things would get. Director Rachel O’Riordan, who first commissioned Iphigenia for the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and is now behind its new staging at London’s Lyric Theatre, said: “Never did I think seven years after the play’s premiere its relevance would be sharper now than ever before.” 

Effie’s searing monologue ends with a question. “We keep on taking it, but what will you do when we’ve had enough of taking it?” Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter so that Artemis would allow his ships to sail during the Trojan war. Iphigenia’s Effie shows us the terrible human cost of sacrificing vital public services for the sake of market economics.

Iphigenia in Splott is on at London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until October 22.

Leila Hawkins


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