Meat will make you hungry. Or it will trigger your gag reflex, make you lose your appetite. For Gillian Greer’s characters eat and drink voraciously. Perhaps even alarmingly. The act of consumption—of choosing what to eat, how much to eat, when to stop—runs through Greer’s richly shaded play about sexual assault and trauma like the marbled layers of fat in a prime rib.
I am stretching to gastronomical similes for a reason. We are in MEAT, a casual but expensive restaurant in Dublin, which has been newly opened by Chef Ronan (Sean Fox). General Manager Jo (Elinor Lawless) describes it as a place of culinary exploration, one that’s proudly insensitive to its customers’ dietary restrictions. No additions to or omissions from the dishes. No vegetarians or vegans. “We can’t guarantee your comfort,” she says, “but we can assure you that this will be an experience.”
Enter Max (India Mullen), a former girlfriend of Ronan’s from college. An “experience”—of closure and healing—is what Max is looking for, after all. She is there to break the news to Ronan that her upcoming memoir will include an account of the night during their relationship when he raped her. She is asking not for his permission or blessing, but for his understanding. While the night in question is burnt into her mind, Ronan claims not to remember it, denying her version of events and accusing her of trying to blacken his name.
At a time when discussions about sexual assault can feel ubiquitous, Greer is careful not to overplay the topicality of her subject. Instead, she fills this tensile set-up with small wonders. The play limits itself to tracing Max and Ronan’s explosive dinner, but it does so in a roughly non-chronological way, placing some of its key scenes out of order. There’s an affectionate humour between this ex-couple, whose scarred history and heated confrontations can’t sever a lingering thread of intimacy.
With its lucid performances, Lucy Jane Atkinson’s stylish production brings home the manifold ambiguities of this emotional abattoir. Mullen’s Max and Fox’s Ronan make a shape-shifting pair: they are evasive not only with each other, but to a certain extent with the audience. There are some moments when their bathetic digressions and sparks of rekindled affection miss the mark of plausibility, but their emotional undulations still manage to be gripping. This is not a soured relationship where all is teary-eyed screams and shouts. It’s the sort of wreckage where it’s relatively easy to find—and, if necessary, to reinstate—decorum, laughter, and goofiness.
What partially accounts for this is their third wheel. Lawless’ Jo is a bit of a puzzle: she starts out almost like the parody of an exacting maître d’, but transforms into a darkly complex presence—at once an empathetic source of support and an unnerving embodiment of callousness. As undercooked as her arc is, she triangulates the unease in the room and prevents the action from becoming too self-contained. When Max and Ronan have said everything they can, it is Jo who will utter a sizzling, decisive question and conclude the play.
Rachel Stone’s sleekly suggestive design both amplifies the performances and accentuates the work’s frayed realism. Max and Ronan shed their skins and pry themselves open against the backdrop of two slaughtered animals, hanging upside down. As one scene gives way to another, they spill their wine on the floor, smear the walls with foie gras, and throw their meals around. Aided by Zia Bergin-Holly’s azure lighting and Annie May Fletcher’s rhythmic sound design, they take apart a dinner and construct a battlefield where the acts of gnawing, slurping, and vomiting double as weapons.
It’s only fitting that such a bodily play dwells so insistently on what constitutes and dissolves an appetite, how palates change and remain fixed over time. Meat raises loaded questions: the supposed slipperiness of sexual consent, the performative implications of confrontation and closure, the drive to publicize and monetize trauma. Somehow, the fact that these preoccupations are touched on so lightly has made me mull them over even more. It’s a credit to Greer’s play that its pungent aftertaste sticks around.
Meat is on at Theatre503 until 14th March. More info and tickets here.