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Review: Meek at the Unity Theatre ***1/2

September 10, 2018

The meek may not be about to inherit the earth in this dystopian drama set in an Icelandic parallel universe where misogynist Christian zealots rule the roost.

But equally they’re spared the kind of barbaric Biblical punishments so beloved by fraternal fundamentalists in the Middle East, such as being stoned to death.

Control by fear, the abuse of power, the political verses the personal, real friendship verses online ‘popularity’ – there are a slew of themes explored in Penelope Skinner’s intense all-women three-hander, brought to the Unity by Headlong after being premiered at Edinburgh this summer.

Irene (Shvorne Marks) is in custody for singing a song in a public that the powers-that-be claim is critical of the Holy Ghost, but which she maintains when questioned by her inscrutable lawyer Gudrun (Amanda Wright) is really an angry reaction to a failed love affair.

Events escalate exponentially through a series of scenes set in the claustrophobic surroundings of various gloomy cells, and over 65 bleak minutes as both Gudrun, and Irene’s best friend, the ‘meek’ Anna (Scarlett Brookes), appeal to her to play her political accusers’ game.

As Irene’s plight becomes more widely known, her song takes on a life of its own, being shared on social media and becoming an international symbol of protest and solidarity. But how real is the ephemeral support of social media ‘likes’? And are a million #PrayForIrene tweets priceless, or worthless, when real lives are at stake?

Skinner’s play is certainly thought-provoking, although much of the same ground has been trodden before, some of it by the recent small screen version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Scarlett Brookes (Anna), Shvorne Marks (Irene) and Amanda Wright (Gudrun). Pic: Helen Murray

 

There are some cleverly subtle touches; all the subjugated women in Skinner’s un-named Scandinavian anti-paradise have surnames ending in ‘dottir’ – forever defined by their relationship to men.

But at other times there are annoying niggles. Why, as someone living in this repressive society, is Irene so naïve, and so surprised when she falls foul of its rules? And in a country where state control is absolute and retribution swift and violent, how does the population still have unfettered access to the corruptive secular influence of the world wide web?

It’s the Internet that allows one small song, written in a one small bedroom, to illuminate the injustice being endured by many.

And yet, ironically, Irene’s ultimate fate derives not from a higher ideal, from her determination to stick to her principals, or to protect her image, or even a passionate desire to change the world for her fellow women, but simply from the age old mistake of falling for the wrong man.

 

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