One of the most famous scenes of a famous TV show that you all definitely know features a woman paraded naked down the street followed by a bell that clangs after her. The word ‘shame’ echoes after her as she shuffles down the cobbles. Boys in my class at school had an app on their phone that sounded like the bell from the show and they’d run after girls shouting ‘shame! shame!’.
In Penelope Skinner’s new play, Meek, women are subject to their husbands. The conditions of this subjection are blurry, which is the most frustrating thing about the dystopian drama. In this world crafted by Amy Hodge as director, it is illegal for women to disobey their husbands, and an unmarried woman is a shamed woman. This is largely because Meek is set in a fundamentalist Christian society where disobeying God and disobeying men are equally illegal. The protagonist, Irene (Shvorne Marks), has written a song for her married lover, leading to her arrest. Again, the terms of this process are ambiguous. I wonder if perhaps Skinner has written the show so it is intentional that we feel like we are watching through frosted glass; even the dialogue is cavernous and overblown, like they are trying to be heard through a wall.
In the most directly political moment of the play, Irene wonders aloud what it means to be a free woman, and if that phrase is a contradiction in itself. Skinner, I think, has attempted to highlight a society of patriarchy and control in a strange dystopian universe. The faults in the production lie in its inability to find what it is trying to say. Each of the three characters, all women, express nothing that looks like emotion and until the very end their faces remain taught. Marks’ character becomes famous because of her wrongful imprisonment, and her heroism leads her to become a martyr. This isn’t a new idea – protests happen in prisons and captivity frequently, leading to citizens becoming political figures who become martyrs. Placing it in a dystopian police state suggests that Skinner sees this as something out of the ordinary – close enough to us to feel real but far enough way that we don’t step outside and see it happening.
For all of her good intentions, it feels like Skinner and Hodge are displacing us into a half-formed patriarchy that doesn’t know its own rules. If we hold a mirror up to ourselves, it should reflect back at us something that we couldn’t see before. If boys running around after girls in schools shouting ‘shame’ feels dystopian, then perhaps we are already there. The radical idea that men might not allow their wives to leave the house without their permission is not confined to the rules of an imagined police state – it’s right here, already.
Meek is on at the Traverse Theatre until 26 August 2018. Click here for more information.