Meek (Traverse Theatre, 11 August 2018)
The popularity of the recent The Handmaids Tale TV adaptation seems to have tainted Penelope Skinner's chance of success with Meek, as if critics feel two female-led dystopian dramas cannot exist independently. Although taking clear influence in its 'strictly christian society' premise, Penelope Skinner's offering to the Edinburgh fringe, alongside her well-received play Angry Alan, covers an interesting range of ideas, from the pursuit of fame to the intricacies of female friendship, within the framework of an unseen, overbearingly religious authority.
The production is entirely set within the prison cell of a woman, Irene, whom has been arrested for singing a blasphemous or 'unreligious' song in a cafe, which we discover through discussions with her lawyer Gutrin and her best friend Anna, was a song about her married lover. Irene becomes a martyr on the outside world for her arrest, with her music becoming the cry for rebellion in a modern society of viral videos and trending hashtags. She is an 'easy target' for the government to make accountable as a black woman - and she is left to make the choice of whether to betray her beliefs and ruin her fame for freedom, or die a matyr.
The production is supposed to be set in a Scandinavian country, however in performance this did not come across. The unknown location however I felt did not hinder, as you can imagine this being in any country where 'traditional' values are respected more than peoples lives. Written shortly after the referendum, Skinner is interestingly unambiguous on the fact that "it’s not a dystopia"1, but a very real and possible place. This is made clear in Max Jones' design - The grey cell with looming cross create the feeling of an archaic, heavy-handed government, and welcome the stillness that Irene provides. The play is not one of raging highs and lows of emotion, rather emulating the numbness that instead often comes when faced with terrible situations.
Although the production has been criticised for its "lack of emotional texture"2, I felt this was one of the most interesting aspects of Irene's character, and the production as a whole. Her composure in even the most dire circumstances form her into a serene martyr, aggravating the power dynamics within her relationships with her best friend and her lawyer, whom are both equally as reserved in their responses despite tensions (or excitement) building under the surface - they are all playing the game to their individual benefit, and therefore their cards are close to their chest.
My final thoughts on Meek upon exiting the theatre were simply how fitting a title could be. The definition of Meek is 'quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive'. Irene aspires to be the opposite, however in essence becomes a submissive vessel for a rebellion she does not even follow. Anna, her best friend seems to attain the perfect gentle female identity that the society idolises, however as her transgressions and character develops, it is revealed that if the Meek are to inherit the earth, it does not bode well for our future.