Meet Me At Dawn

Zinnie Harris
Arcola Theatre in association with DOT Theatre
Arcola Theatre (Studio One)

Marianne Oldham as Robyn and Jessica Hardwick as Helen Credit: x
Marianne Oldham as Robyn and Jessica Hardwick as Helen Credit: x
Jessica Hardwick as Helen Credit: x
Marianne Oldham as Robyn Credit: x
Jessica Hardwick as Helen and Marianne Oldham as Robyn Credit: x

At first, there is Marianne Oldham as Robyn asking questions then, you realise there is a figure on the ground. It is Helen (Jessica Hardwick) and Robyn is down there with her and they are shouting at each other too fast to be comprehensible in a mixture of relief and panic.

They are lesbian lovers, living together with a dog that really belongs to their next-door neighbour, who have hired a boat at the seaside. Way out from the shore, it has sunk and now, sea-drenched, they have been cast up on what looks like an island or maybe it’s just a sandbank.

Robyn talks of how wet Helen is, the sun is out so it can dry them, but for now they are more concerned about how they will get back home where the dog will be waiting.

They are a typical couple in that under pressure along with their concern they start apportioning blame to each other or elsewhere. Ring for help, says Helen, but the phone went down with the boat. Ask for our money back: the boat wasn’t fit for purpose. A woman comes by who doesn’t answer their questions. Was she real? Where are they? Things aren’t quite what they seemed to be.

Robyn sometimes seems to stand outside the action. She speaks of parallel worlds, but you begin to think that perhaps they are dead and in Limbo. In fact, Zinnie Harris says this play had its roots in wanting to adapt the Orpheus story, especially that moment when Orpheus looks back and loses her and Robyn, like Orpheus, is still living and wants Helen back and is allowed one more day with her, but in this strange place.

It becomes almost a meditation on loss and grieving and memory of what was, the drama being in the gradual realisation of the situation and its painful acceptance. There is theatrical fire in the intense performances of Oldham and Hardwick. They don’t have to play romantic or erotic for their loving relationship doesn’t need spelling out; what we see is their confusion and the pain and the struggle to accept loss.

Turkish director and designer Murat Daltaban stages it simply against a plain screen that changes colour under Cem Yilmazer’s lighting with just a metal table and chair providing anonymous higher surfaces and sometimes subtly underscored by Oguz Kaplangi and Chris Drohan’s soundscape. Some important moments are played at floor level, totally out of sight for some of the audience. I don’t expect every seat in the house to have a full view of the stage but why place actors or dancers (for I’ve seen this often in dance in fringe venues) where only the front row can see them?

Daltaban’s setting matches mood but gives no information. If at first the audience is left wondering where they are and what is going on, that is something they share with Robyn and Helen. They will probably be making accurate guesses well before the characters sort it out, even if they haven’t read the Orpheus link in the programme, though this isn’t a retelling of that story.

The two women are given a realistic relationship, the exploration of reactions to loss and of grieving and the element of conundrum make this an interesting evening played without interval. Surreal and sometimes funny, it doesn’t plumb depths but is carried along by its theatricality and two splendid performances.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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