Gary Owen Iphigenia in Splott

Gary Owen In Conversation

Back in 2015, Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott was performed for the first time in the Sherman Theatre, telling the dramatic story of a young woman, Effie, and drawing its inspiration from the Greek myth of the same name. With the play opening for a new run in the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Emma Schofield sat down for a chat with Gary about returning to the play in 2022 and why it’s time for change in Welsh theatre.

It’s been seven years since Iphigenia in Splott was first performed in the Sherman Theatre and now it’s opening for a run at the Lyric Hammersmith, once again under the direction of Rachel O’Riordan, and with Sophie Melville reprising the role of Effie. What was it like returning to the play in 2022? It seems like a really timely moment for it.

Gary Owen: It’s odd in that we’ve been coming back to it all the time, you know, at various points for different reasons. We did a few runs of it and then we did it again, for Audible, as an audiobook and then we started doing it, or we started thinking about doing it, in the middle of the first lockdown. So it’s never quite gone away. Even so, it feels quite nerve wracking now that we’re actually on the cusp of it. It’s one thing, starting off with a tiny play in a small venue, that’s going to run for 10 days and then it’s another thing when you put that same play on a big stage, and then put loads of posters with five stars on it and go, ‘this is great. You’re going to like this’, rather than just asking people to come in and see if they like it.

That’s true, I guess the very first time around, no one knew what to expect from the play at all. Whereas this time, a lot of people will already be familiar with the plot before they come to see it and may even have seen it before. So I imagine that it’s a completely different ballgame in many ways.

Gary Owen: Yes. I was looking at some of the marketing notes and the promotional stuff that I signed off on and at the time I’d thought it was a great idea to use the last line of the play on everything. Now I’m not so sure that was a good idea, you know, because she goes on a bit of a journey in the story and now we’re kind of giving that away right at the start. You’re constantly worrying about whether you’re getting it right.

Gary Owen
Gary Owen discusses the return of Iphigenia in Splott

I don’t think you are giving too much away, especially for people who haven’t seen the play before. When I saw it the first time, I actually thought one of the most powerful aspects of it was the things that weren’t said, which seemed to be so poignant. I mean, there’s that sheer frustration which radiates from Effie towards all of the things she can’t control. In fact, I wonder if that frustration at the loss of the things that gave her liberty in her life, and at the loss of her bodily autonomy, is actually almost more poignant now than it was back in 2015.

Gary Owen: Well, I don’t know, we’ll see. A couple of times people have talked about doing various kinds of adaptations of it and they always say it’s really weird, because she’s this character that does what the hell she likes, and then about three quarters of the way through, everything switches and these things that start to happen to her. That’s what happens when you go into a system that you have to trust is going to do the best for you. It is terrifying that you’re there, suddenly not knowing what’s going to be done and whether it will be done to the best of their ability. In those situations, even if there are people around you who are trying to do the best thing, you know they may lack the resources to do that.

That sense of being voiceless and powerless in a system is arguably becoming more of a problem as we’re seeing the whole basis of our society kind of being eroded right now as well. Do you think Effie would have something different to say about the Wales we’re facing now in 2022? Or would she still be angry at it?

Gary Owen: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. That’s her story and what happens to her beyond that point is a different story and might be in different things that other people would write. Perhaps those things would be the best reflection of where we are now, but obviously, loads of these issues are still happening to people. I had Radio Wales on this morning, and there was a phone-in and a woman called in and said her knee had stopped working and she couldn’t walk. She was on the waiting list, for an operation and they told her it’d probably be five years before they could do the operation. She was 74 and said they may as well just take her off the list, because there’s every chance she won’t be well enough by then to have it. As it was, I think she was in a position where she was able to re-mortgage her house or something and get her knee fixed privately, so now she can walk. She’s transformed from being somebody who was utterly dependent on everyone around her, to being able to go and do what she wants and walk five miles a day.

More of these sorts of things are happening and are going to happen. You know, we’re seeing, at the moment, this extraordinary spectacle of a Conservative Prime Minister who’s going to spend more money than anyone’s ever spent on helping us out, which would be great except it’s not going to help because we’re going to have to pay for it in the long term. Someone has to pay and we already know that it’s not going to be the people who are making windfall profits out of this situation. We can see it coming down the track. So I don’t know what to say about what Effie would think about these things, but the situations that she finds herself in are only going to get worse and happen more, until we change in some quite substantial ways.

I think that’s another element of the play that will probably strike people as well, particularly audiences who saw this the first time around, the fact that things haven’t got better.

Gary Owen: I mean, yes, but not many people did see it the first time in some ways. I feel like it’s not a famous play that people have heard half of before they’ve even turned up to see it, it’s just been significant within the context of my career.

It’s also been significant in terms of the productions that the Sherman has put on. It’s kind of entered the Sherman’s narrative now as something that happened, that people remember was a talking point at the time. I wondered what you thought about the monologue, now at this moment in time as well, because we seem to have got to a point where there’s so many plays that feature enormous casts and absolutely huge productions. With Iphigenia in Splott, the play is stripped right back; we’ve got one voice, one story, and one person on that stage.

Gary Owen: The reality about monologues is that they’re really cheap. I mean, I pitched it to the Sherman at a time, when I knew things were difficult. So I offered them a short play with one person in it, that didn’t need a set, knowing that they’re going to have to put something on and that this was really the cheapest possible thing. Monologues are a really good form for taking in stories, one that should probably be in films rather than theatre plays. In principle, you can do anything in theatre and no one cares as there’s no formula for what you can do, but I think those sort of tight contained plays probably work best. A monologue creates the illusion of unity because it’s just one person’s voice talking to you. I just really like writing them.

You’ve written recently a little bit about how you think Welsh theatre actually needs to be more ambitious as a sector and of how we need to re-examine what our expectations of Welsh theatre are and whether those expectations are where they should be. Where do we start with that?

Gary Owen: There’s a really big document which that article started from. I work for the Sherman board and our Chair asked us all to think about where the theatre will be in 2030. I wrote this and because I was new, I was the only one who did the homework, so we distributed this to the board. The aim of it was that I was trying to explain to people who are lawyers, or who run catering firms, what is weird about theatre. Some of those ideas actually came from talking to Rachel O’Riordan initially. I remember when we first met – she is Irish and has worked in Scotland – she said to me that in Ireland, Irish playwrights write plays that open on main stages, and they fill those spaces. The same in Scotland, Scottish writers open on main stages, and they sell out. In Wales, that doesn’t happen and Rachel asked me why that didn’t happen here. I started to say, well, we just haven’t got into it, but she stopped me there and said that she’d been to the Wales Millennium Centre and seen two one-man cabaret shows which had filled 1500 seats, for a six week run. So she said to me, ‘clearly there is an audience, why haven’t you got it?’ and my little world collapsed for a bit.

Because she’s right. When I go to the Wales Millennium Centre and see a show like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the audience are there. And we’ve got so many good writers in Wales, but it almost always happens that when one of us gets a show on in England, or in Edinburgh, or something like that, people act like it’s an amazing new writer that’s never been seen before. Except, we have seen them before in Wales, but we haven’t given them that platform that they needed and the attention they deserved. So those people end up wandering along doing tiny fringe productions for years and not getting the attention. So where do we start? We have a lot of problems, we have a lot of things that are against us, one of which has to be that we’re sort of falling down a vicious spiral into things being worse and worse. But the joy of a vicious spiral is if you can stop and turn around, you’ll start escalating again. I mean, the number one thing that gets broader audiences in is something, or someone, that they know; usually a famous actor. If you look at National Theatre, Scotland, they’ve had Alan Cumming in their first years, coming back to do Macbeth. We struggle with that in Wales. Obviously, we did have Rhys Ifans who came back to do On Bear Ridge for Ed Thomas and it sold the main space of the Sherman. It was really full, so that worked and you might want to go into why that show didn’t get on faster, but that’s probably another discussion.

That does sound like another story…

Gary Owen: Yeah it is. So that’s what we need, a famous actor or a story that you can get across in a sentence to grab peoples’ attention. A few years ago we were stuck in the Sherman, in the sense that our theatre wasn’t big enough and prestigious enough to get famous actors to come and want to work here. Yet towards the end of Rachel’s time running the Sherman, we were at a point where we had West End companies coming to us and saying that they would essentially fund productions at the Sherman that we would have artistic control over, that they would run for a couple of weeks at the Sherman and then transfer to the West End. Now that’s one way of doing it. The other, is making something relevant to people. I mean, like, why did Iphigenia in Splott sell even the relatively small numbers it did? I remember at the time, it was programmed for two weeks, on the basis of how shows in the Sherman had been selling at that time. But it has a part of Cardiff in the title, it sort of says to audiences, this is a play about you, that has relevance to you. I think that’s partly why we’d sold up the run before the press night.

So that’s something, it has to have relevance to people. It will take a long time and it’s really hard, but I feel that some of the smaller theatres are trying to build that relevance in and use it, and some of the bigger theatres are not. Actually, that’s unfair because probably Theatr Clwyd, to be fair to them, are doing that, but a lot of the bigger theatres are not even trying to do that at the moment. The smaller theatres are, because they have to have that relevance, just because they’re more fragile. If you look at theatres like Torch, that we think of as not being very glamorous, they very often pick subjects that people know and will come and see a play about.

It’s that sense of connection, isn’t it? That idea that something has been written for you, it isn’t just being put on there, it’s actually something that’s been designed for you to come in and to feel part of. There have been some really massive productions outside of theatres in Wales recently, as well. I’m thinking a lot of the National Theatre Wales on-location performances; we’ve got another one coming up now with Galwad which involves this partnership with Sky Arts, and they’re going to broadcast things in real time as they unfold across a week. Is there perhaps a future for Welsh theatre that lies outside of physical theatres? Or are we actually losing something in a way when we do these huge scale productions that involve casts of hundreds and take place outside somewhere?

Gary Owen: I think those productions can be amazing, but we have to realise they only ever suck up money, they actually cost money to do. The problem is whenever people complain to National Theatre Wales, which I do on a near weekly basis, they will come back to me and say – but we only get this much money, we can only do this many shows. No other major theatre thinks like that, no other major theatre goes, here’s our subsidy here are the shows. Instead, they say here’s our subsidy, here are the three shows we’re going to do that are going to bring in a tonne of money and enable us to do far more work. I have survived as a playwright for twenty years without ever having a commercial hit in the West End or anything like that. The reason for that is that my plays can be done in relatively small-scale theatres, they don’t need huge sets and resources. Smaller set ups can be done again, a huge site-specific form of performance, almost by definition, cannot be done again. Those kinds of productions are pure investment.

There are times when it’s absolutely worth doing those, and there are times when it’s absolutely worth doing a show that will not make any money. For example, to be generous, or to be fair to National Theatre Wales, there was a show they did a couple of years ago called I think Splish Splash that was for children with profound disabilities. You could only have two kids in the audience per show, obviously, that’s going to lose a huge amount of money, but if you’re going to spend money on subsidising a theatre show, that’s what you should spend it on because those are people who are completely excluded from theatre in almost every other way.

The other thing that is really worth doing is something like The Passion that kind of transformed a town for a while. That was only possible because National Theatre Wales were given two years worth of funding when they were set up in 2009. I can remember John McGrath telling me this, they basically had a whole year where they had all their funding and essentially had John wandering around recruiting people, and then another year pulling it together and that’s how it was all paid for. I think a massive show like that is so brilliant as a kind of beacon of what theatre can do and how it can drag people in. The thing is though, putting on shows in theatres actually works. I mean, theatres are really efficient at putting on shows and they have things like stairlifts and induction loops and public transport connections, and all those sorts of things that can make shows really accessible. Once you get people through the door and buying tickets you can use that money to fund things. It would be a disaster if we didn’t do that kind of work as well.

Obviously I’m coming at this more from the point of view of a critic, rather than someone that’s actually been involved in these theatres, but, for me, it feels as if it’s almost lost its way from where we were twenty years ago. I mean, there was that point, when devolution was still very new in Wales and there seemed to be a kind of sense of hope around Welsh theatre and there was a bit of momentum, there was a feeling that it was going to undergo some kind of revival that would, if not bring it up to that level that you’ve mentioned in Ireland and Scotland, at least kind of give us a boost forward towards that. Yet it does feel almost as if that’s just kind of faltered a little.

Gary Owen: I think there is almost always hope, because there are so many talented people and there’s always, we’re almost always on the cusp of something transformative. Somebody could do something at any moment, that would be brilliant. I saw a show, recently, called Anthem at the Wales Millennium Centre and that was obviously a really expensive show. Part me did wonder if it was a lot of money that they didn’t need to spend, but it was actually the performance and the lighting and the direction, not just the video graphics. But it was so joyous. I mean, I’ve learned Welsh, although about thirty years ago, so I like to think that I’m in that community and to just have the piss taken out of you for eighty minutes by somebody who really knows that community inside out, it was just a joy. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed having the piss taken out of me more. It was really brilliant and people were loving it and, you know, if there was a way to do that show, without all those videos, just using the actors, that show could tour and that show could make money. Even a Welsh show could tour, it could do that; it just takes a bit of producorial determination, to think about how much we’re going to spend on each show, how many people we’re going to get in, etc.

Also, things don’t have to be hits, but if they even start to break even then you can do more shows next year than you did last year. It’s like when Rachel (O’Riordan) started at the Sherman, she just had a clear strategy that she was going to do new work in the studio. Then in autumn, she would do some big classic that was on everyone’s set text lists and she would try and build an audience. After two or three years she was going to get somebody to do a radical version of a classic, and hopefully bring those two audiences together and that’s exactly what she did. She got me to do the reimagining of Cherry Orchard and it ended up being a radical version because there are twelve characters in the play and we could only afford seven, but we had to make it work. That necessity kind of got me over any kind of trepidation on my part about fiddling with Chekhov’s work too much because I had to do it and I had to find a way to make it work with seven actors. We didn’t have anyone who was a massive TV star to draw the big audiences in – we had Morfydd Clark, but it was before she was really known – but we still came close to breaking even on ticket sales and then the bar takings pushed it over the line.

Doing that play meant we got to put seven actors on stage, we got to employ the people who work in the theatre, we got to put on a show and ultimately, it didn’t actually cost the Sherman anything, if what I’m saying is right! Theatr Clwyd have done the same too before, they did it with Home, I’m Darling which was a West End hit and they’re doing it now with the Famous Five, so it is possible to do and maybe one day they’ll do that with a Welsh writer. Then, at that point, we can argue more about what the canon is, but right now I’m at once so exhausted and bored of the situation and yet also feeling like we might almost be on the edge of something quite transformational and just holding those two thoughts at once.

This is true. And I think as you say, the potential is there, it just feels like it needs something to kind of tip it over the edge and into that next phase that, that we’re kind of always on the edge of and never quite reach.

Gary Owen: It needs somebody at the Arts Council of Wales to just, you know, say quite seriously to these companies – you are gone, if you don’t put yourself together, and it needs that. I think that’s what it would take.

We’ve been having similar conversations about literature in Wales and perhaps there are some parallels there. It definitely seems like it’s time for some kind of change, for a belief in that potential you talk about within writers in Wales, and also for more belief in audiences – they will turn out and enjoy theatre.

Gary Owen: Yeah, the Sherman packs out every Christmas because people know that if they come for the Christmas show, they’re going to have a great time. They run two shows a day because that demand is there. It’ll be the same this Christmas with Tales from Hannah McPake’s Brothers Grimm. 

Yeah and maybe even more so now, when people are, in the current climate, thinking a little bit more about what they spend their money on and what they buy tickets for. Returning to Iphigenia in Splott, I’m wondering whether you’re tempted to go back, to look at it again, or whether you’ve had enough of it now because it’s had all this attention and yet you’ve written so many other things. Are you are you ready to move on from this? Is this run a kind of last hurrah for your relationship with the play?

Gary Owen: Yes it is. No, I say that and really I know that it’s not. Bethan Jones who is now a very successful TV producer, plugged away for years, trying to get to the BBC to make a film or TV adaptation for it. I went along with her because I trust her and I never quite thought that we could go to the BBC and say we’ve got a female monologue that we want to turn to a TV series, do you think that might work?

It didn’t happen, but I ended up writing a script that I sent to Mark Evans, the director who I didn’t know, I just sort of sent it in desperation, because sometimes if the director gets interested in something, other people become interested. He’d just made an adaptation of Owen Thomas’s play Grav with Branwen Kennard as producer, and I think S4C went to them and said, ‘have you got another one like this?’ And then Mark Evans went, ‘oh, yeah, I think I’ve got something in my inbox that has been there for six months’. So in theory, we are working on a Welsh language film adaptation of it, which means that even as I say that I’m done with it, secretly I’m not. Hopefully, that’s going to happen next year, but these things can be greenlit and then un-greenlit very easily. Rachel and Sophie and I also have something new that we’re going to do together, so I think maybe it’s time to move on to that.


Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott plays at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London, until 22nd October. Tickets are available here.