Saturday 12 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Meet Me At Dawn at the Traverse, or, The Rest Is…?

After the disappointing Rhinoceros earlier in the week I wasn't especially optimistic about this show. It turns out to be well worth seeing. It moved me in places to the point of bringing tears to my eyes and if the writing can't always quite meet the challenge of the set up it is often powerful.

Zinnie Harris's new play is about a couple Helen (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Robyn (Neve McIntosh). At the start, it appears that the two of them have escaped from a boating accident – though there are suggestive hints from the outset that all is not as it seems. Eventually we realise that one of them died in that accident. There is an effective ambiguity, to my mind, about which of them this is. Two narratives unfold from this – firstly the puzzle of what exactly happened in the accident and the related mystery of who has survived. Secondly, the question of where in fact we are and why.

Both actresses give performances of a very high standard. I was seated closer to McIntosh for much of the performance and that may partly have influenced my sense that she gives the stronger performance, but I think she also benefits from having the more strongly written part. The staging (by designer Fred Meller and lighting designer Simon Wilkinson) is spare – a rock with a sink embedded in it (for reasons which gradually become clear) – but effective. The sense of confinement to it gives a real charge to the moment when one actress finally steps off it. The piece is finely directed by Orla O'Loughlin who supports her performers to find those electric moments of touch and stillness that can be so powerful.

Harris is at her strongest in dissecting the despair of the partner left behind. Among the many vivid moments there's the frustration of the disorganisation of the deceased – where the hell is the key to the desk drawer?, the idea of being lost in a grieving reverie while the kitchen sink, forgotten, overflows, and a powerful cry of helplessness – what am I supposed to do now? The dream, or is it, of a wish which may have precipitated this post-death meeting and the discovery that that wish might actually be a terrible thing is also powerfully brought home.

Where the writing is less strong is in conjuring a character for the deceased – for, of course, we do not know what happens after death. Afterwards, I thought of a line in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography where he talks about a promise with a friend that whoever dies first will come back and tell the other what it is like afterwards. “He never fulfilled his promise” Franklin bleakly informs us. Harris struggles with this problem and having created a powerful set up doesn't quite convince in her portrayal of the dead, and resorts to an increase in swearing which isn't a sufficient solution.

The play also struggles a little bit with its ending – there were two or three points where I thought it might have effectively stopped, though the final image is a moving one.

Overall though an often powerful piece of theatre. It continues at various times in the Traverse to the end of the Festival. Well worth catching.

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