BWW Review: MEET ME AT DAWN, Arcola Theatre
In a programme note, Meet Me At Dawn's writer Zinnie Harris explains that the work engages with the life-defining moment in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice when the former looks back and seals his lover's fate to remain in the underworld. This look, rightly pointed out as difficult to stage because of its fleetingness, occupies the entirety of Harris' play, allowing the two figures to converse, laugh and, most importantly, say goodbye.
Through the mythological source, the play's tragic end is apparent from the beginning. It becomes more a case of seeing how the traditional narrative unfolds and to enjoy (if that's the right word) the changes made by the playwright. But Harris alters the traditional narrative enough to leave audiences questioning. Instead of the subterranean, flaming realm of Pluto, Helen and Robyn are stranded on a sandbank surrounded by water.
As noted above, these characters are obviously not direct parallels to Orpheus and Eurydice. They are Helen (Jessica Hardwick) and Robyn (Marianne Oldham), an archaeologist and a lecturer in Gothic literature respectively.
Where Orpheus' lyrical ability is not present in Robyn, the character instead conjures imaginary pictures of domestic happiness and emotional contentment that are heart-breaking. Oldham gives Robyn a hopeful fragility, whilst as Helen, Hardwick has a joy of life and a savouring of its inconsistencies that heightens her passing. Together, the two work very well together, suggesting careful and sensitive direction from Murat Daltaban.
The play is full of references to looking through glass or water, and of echoes and repetition. Helen calls this space "a shimmer", a beautiful register of its refracted existence, and Daltaban's simple design consists of a mirror-like floor that reflects the action above, creating an alternative, liminal space.
However, whilst the play is beautifully written, Harris doesn't manage to overcome the tension between its mythical origins and the impetus to make the show feel modern; Robyn's depression and struggles lie alongside homeless wish-makers (an ersatz Pluto). Sticking either with the earth-shattering dissonance of grief or leaning a little more into the fantastical have provided a stronger grounding to allow the performances to shine all the more.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice continues to act as a fertile story to adapt and imitate today. The other famous theatrical example that immediately comes to mind is Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown, previously at The National Theatre and now on Broadway. Yet against the ostentation of Mitchell's production, Harris' retelling dazzles in its simplicity. Whilst Meet Me At Dawn could do with a stronger sense of unity, it is well worth descending to the Arcola to see this show.
Photograph credit: Lidia Crisafulli.