Are we really that far from a dystopian nightmare? ‘Meek’ @ The Unity Theatre
Penelope Skinner’s (Linda, The Village Bike) touring new play Meek is pulled off with disarming simplicity. A cast of only three women, minimal set design and a story that largely plays out off stage, Meek subtly binds its audience up, spellbound and haunted.
An easy comparison would be to liken Meek to the novels of Margaret Atwood, recently brought to the small screen in A Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. Indeed, they share the setting of a not-too-distant, not-too-different future in which contemporary political realities have turned into dystopian nightmares – particularly for women. The characters are like us, but trapped in a world we may worry is just around the corner. In Meek, this means a fundamentalist, conservative, radical Christian future, in which women must retreat into marriage, the bonds of religious persecution and surveillance keeping them wringing their hands in Hail Mary’s.
Meek is driven by the incarceration of Irene, locked up for singing a song that seemed to sow the seeds of dissent. Performed by Shvorne Marks, Irene is the backbone of the play, but the supporting cast of lawyer Gudrun (Amanda Wright) and best-friend Anna (Scarlett Brookes) knit together a densely layered, emotionally devastating performance. The direction of Amy Hodge is finely tuned – particularly powerful are the short, darkly lit interludes where the cast change Irene from her free to her imprisoned clothes.
Meek comes from theatre company Headlong, well known for their politically powerful plays and commitment to female protagonists. Meek befits a company whose work is highly contemporary. It feels important to watch it; no easy ‘state of the nation’ commentary, just brutal political realities playing out on recognisable characters. References to ‘social media’ can often feel clunky in plays or novels, but the development of Irene’s story through the ‘likes’ of her supposedly subversive song fits the tone of the play perfectly.
Like in Greek drama, much of the action goes on between scenes, leaving the twists and turns of the plot to the imagination and allowing only the emotional core to remain. It is a short play (just over an hour, an ‘Edinburgh Fringe’ length) and this breakneck speed only adds to the intensity.
While avoiding spoilers, however, it is important to note one slight uncertainty with the play. Meek, to a small extent, is driven by the love Irene holds for a man, and at turns the friendships between the women turn sour. For me, the play could have done without falling into the easy trope of motivating female characters through heteronormative love, and for showing female friendship as fallible. The play simply didn’t need this – it was strong enough without these plot twists.
The play has now been show at multiple different venues, including the Edinburgh Fringe, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. It comes highly recommended, not least for the performances of the small cast. It is safe to say that Headlong continue to bring out some of the most invigorating theatre around.