We’ve been here before: one or more people trapped in an isolated, strangely featureless location, a series of crucial gaps in their knowledge about who they are or how they arrived. The slow piecing together of details; evenly-spaced revelations; a general acquisition of understanding. It’s the setup behind everything from Kafka to Lost, often serving as a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for our having been born into a world that we don’t fully understand and over which we have minimal control.
Combine this with the fact that there can be few people who have lost those they felt closest to – a family member, a loved one, even key distant acquaintances – who have not imagined that person’s return: have at times been so close to the edge of despair that, in one dark, hopeless moment or another, they believed that if they wished hard enough, they could bring someone back from death itself. Such desperate dreaming seems practically as primordial as human civilisation: there are those who speculate the very notion of ghosts has its origins in those who saw the dead in their dreams.
Zinnie Harris’ Meet Me at Dawn combines these two simple ideas in a tightly constructed, dramatically nuanced and shockingly powerful way. Here, unlike the Orphic myth in which a person descends into the underworld intent on bringing back a loved one from the kingdom of death, Harris’ goal is not merely to portray the attempt, but rather to explore what would happen were that oft-doomed rescue to succeed.
In doing so, Harris’ two characters, Robyn and Helen, express a full range of everything from fear and resentment to unadulterated rage as they piece together the circumstances both of the initial loss and the brief subsequent return. And, interspersed throughout the play’s dry humour and disquieting suspense, the playwright lays bare a series of frighteningly accurate insights into the darker side of grief, and the irrational emotions that are born of the strongest of bonds.
The stagecraft, minimal and effective, serves the drama throughout, adding the subtleties of imaginative detail without once threatening to upstage the central drama. And, as a love story between the play’s two women, the performances from Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Neve McIntosh are never anything but compelling, convincing and utterly heartbreaking. As they deliver Harris’ halting, poetically fragmentary prose, the thoughts and emotions they express are the stuff of such brutal realism that one must believe that Harris once descended into the underworld herself – and returned alone to tell the tale.