A couple of years back, Clara Brennan’s Spine did super well at Edinburgh and Soho. Read the reviews; they’re cracking. Spine, a monologue, was delivered by the talented Rosie Wyatt, who played a smart-arse teenage girl whose bleak prospects are transformed by an unlikely friendship with an elderly woman. Brennan’s play wasn’t exactly subtle when it came to politicising its meaning; it was all about how shite austerity is – especially when you’re poor anyway – but with the right support (a stand-in nan, for example) and a bit of middle-class self-mastery (a good level of literacy and a library card) your life might be transformed, despite the evil Tories and their evil, evil cuts.
Spine was 2014. Iphigenia, two years later, is pretty similar, but on improved terms. In fact, it’s almost fucking brilliant. Both plays are monologues delivered by their central female characters: shafted, poor girls on a journey of transformation, making their middle class audiences aware of how cuts in Britain have affected young, jobless women with only their nans (or adopted nans, in Spine’s case) to help them through. And the similarities of the plays aren’t that important, but since I’ve been talking about crop-tops in my last blog, this incessant yo-yoing of culture surrounding women is here too.
But where Spine, imo, is sanctimonious, with the central character reforming herself by acquainting herself with Jane Eyre, just like any savage should, Iphigenia delivers Effie’s story of sufferance without hammering through a political interpretation until the end (which is, in both cases: isn’t austerity awful?! – who knew). Both plays operate on the easy let’s-just-blame-the-Tories terms in their attempts to politicise the everyday. But, wouldn’t it be interesting if people who wanted to tell stage stories about how crap Britain is did a different political analysis and looked beyond current party politics and entrenched class-systems?
So. Yeah. Iphigenia in Splott is almost brilliant for that reason. But how fucking rousing was the ending, where there’s this bold attempt from Effie to radicalise the debate – not just whine about the Tories. By the end, after losing the love-of-her-life/one-night-stand’s baby in excruciating circumstances (line: ‘I am in hell’ – it crucified me) there’s a real attempt not just to politicise the story, but to radicalise its impact. Effie tells us that she – and people like her – are taking these cuts for us. I felt quite ill thinking like that, as is the intention, and we took the punch. We wanted that punch: this peculiar catharsis created by being told off by someone poor. And, so, by the end, Effie’s fucked if she’ll let this social injustice keep fucking her over. She says they’re going to stop taking it; there’ll be a revolution. And Melville bloody nails it and everyone does a standing ovation and won’t talk about it in the toilet afterward because it was that powerful that you just can’t discuss it in the loo-queue.
But what I’d like to talk about here is Melville’s legs. For much of this incredible performance, Melville’s legs are literally wide open – akimbo. But what is this stance, exactly? It’s effective, but what does it mean? It’s not butch; it’s not quite sexual; it’s not exactly masculine, but certainly it’s something we’ve seen before. It seems that when anyone wants to perform poor, urban girl their legs suddenly get this swag – jolt apart. And this is interesting. At first, I thought it was a kind of power stance – like a Kiwi rugby thing. But then I was thinking why are working class young women always performed akimbo? Is it because it’s naturalistic – true to life? Well, it’s not really. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’ve missed out on some socialisation alongside your dose of cultural capital. And, if that were the case, why do male working class characters, like Violence, still perform a hyper masculine gender performance? Surely they’d be freer to perform without the assumed socialised gender performance too. And that’s the thing; it’s about freedom. The akimbo thing isn’t just about gender or sexualisation or (presumed lack of) socialisation; it’s a stance of personal liberty and it acts like an antidote to the shite-storm surrounding Effie. Even if her life is bad, at least she can sit akimbo, unlike us in the stalls.
If there’s hope, it’s in the proles, right? The poor might be poor but at least they’re beyond all the socialisation that oppresses theatre-going audiences, we hopeless conformists. Sadly, the opposite is true: poverty is not the liberator we wish it was.