Irene’s in prison for a song. The authorities want to make a brutal example of her, but is she willing to be a martyr?
Penelope Skinner’s new play, with its theocratic, dystopian underpinnings and suppression of women inevitably evokes The Handmaid’s Tale. It draws on the same religiosity in its sketching of a world where "meekness" is the boot of the patriarchy.
Amy Hodge’s production steers further into the comparison, with Irene, her visiting friend, Anna, and her lawyer, Gudrun (who may be a Secularist) shrouded in smocks. The entire play is marked by a luminous crucifix carved into the set.
In its exploration of how personal expression is politicised, the mythology of the martyr, and the insidious co-opting of principle by a misogynistic regime, Meek hits a lot of contemporary buttons. The real world feels frighteningly like it’s sliding backwards.
And yet the play consistently feels like it’s borrowing momentum from without, not generating it itself. Designer Max Jones’s monolithic set is generically foreboding, while Skinner’s world-building is sketchy. The characters live in a totalitarian state, and yet YouTube—where Irene’s song goes viral—is still going strong.
It all feels frustratingly vague in comparison with, for example, Margaret Atwood’s chillingly careful outlining of how society falls. Shvorne Marks impresses as Irene, making real her fear, anger and confusion. Scarlett Brookes does a lot with a little, as Anna, but she and the other characters remain ciphers.
Meek exerts a pull as it tackles, sometimes eloquently, the darkness outside the theatre door. But you want more.