Penelope Skinner’s Meek explores the negative impacts that the right to freedom of expression has on both individual and country. After Irene is imprisoned for creating a song that opposes state politics, faith and friendship are tested when she has to make an impossible decision. As her song builds in popularity with increasing YouTube views, it quickly becomes a protest anthem performed by celebrities world-wide. This means that she is in danger – her chances of survival are now less than likely.
Religion and politics are intermingled from the opening image. A large white cross shines brightly against a stone-grey rectangular set (designed by Max Jones), and Zoe Spurr’s lighting design casts dark, angular shadows across the space, creating a constant contrast of hope and despair.
However, from the moment Irene (played by Shvorne Marks) speaks, the stakes seem low. ‘God is dead!’ she shouts, curled in on herself. There appears to be a lack of urgency that she carries throughout the performance. She doesn’t speak with conviction, and her voice is often drowned out by the other actors: Scarlett Brookes and Amanda Wright as her pious friend Anna, and lawyer Gudrun, respectively. There is something in her eyes as she speaks of love, but little else for us to cling on to.
The plot spends a lot of time clarifying details for their audience; scenes tend to blend into each other, with a slow development of action and a pace that refuses to change. The final scene is by far the strongest, and that is thanks to Brookes’ performance. Irene is now dead. A woman has been stoned to death for singing her song, and Brookes delivers a monologue about freedom and her trust in God. As she does so, her body shakes and shivers as she looks out, beyond the horizon of hope, almost demented. Her eyes glisten with a poignant sense of joy as she recalls her happy childhood memories. All this happens whilst Wright is quietly tearing up in the background. There’s something in this scene that the rest of the play has been missing.
At the end of this slow burning journey, the heart of the production is finally exposed. There are thoughtful explorations about the legacy we leave behind when we die, and about the way the state limits our freedom of speech. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have much impact in until its last moments, at which point it’s too great a challenge to make up for a rather meek sixty minutes.
Meek is playing Traverse Theatre until 26 August 2018. For more information and tickets, see here.
Photo Credit: Helen Murray