Zinnie Harris’ Meet Me at Dawn is an intense, thought provoking stage production that revolves around Robin and Helen, a couple who have seemingly been washed up on a small island. Harris has three plays at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but Meet Me at Dawn is the only brand new piece being performed. Nevertheless, it speaks of timeless, universal themes, exploring the complex yet all too familiar experience of grief.
For part of the play, the audience are left to puzzle over mysterious suggestions that Helen may not actually be present; is Robin hallucinating or dreaming? Is Helen? Even when the characters discover the truth, that Helen is dead and the couple are living out one final day as a result of a wish granted for Robin by a strange woman, how can the audience know the whole thing is not still a grief-induced hallucination? The nature of grief as something that can make one insane, that can reduce them to a state of helpless, painful wishful thinking is presented with a stark rawness.
Despite this underlying suspicion that Helen or both the women are not real, there is a constant sense of tangibility that intercepts and confuses this notion; the women often embrace and hold each other – they are clearly very palpable to one another, and the audience can sense this. Yet, when Robin addresses the audience to give chilling soliloquies trying to piece together her thoughts, Helen disappears. The light across the entire stage is dimmed so only Robin is visible, suggesting not only Helen’s transience, but also the insubstantiality of the whole situation. This conflicting mix of stage directions and lighting effectively conveys the desperate confusion that accompanies difficult bereavements. Essentially, we are confronted with a familiar concern: a grieving individual who cannot cope.
The staging of the play is perhaps its greatest strength, rich with metaphor. Almost central on the raised slab of rock that forms the island is a sink. Before the play begins it is dripping, but it goes dormant from the start of the performance. Despite the incongruity of the presence of a sink on what is supposed to be a sandy, deserted island, it does not strike the audience as incongruous at all. The women incorporate it into their every movement and conversation, interacting with it seamlessly, no differently than they do with the sand, or their clothes. They sit on it multiple times throughout the performance, Robin vomits into it, and towards the end Helen uses it for its actual purpose of drawing water and it begins to drip once more. Not once do the characters (or the audience) question its presence there.
This allows the sink to act almost like an anchor for the women, especially Robin, a landmark to root them to this single moment in time. In a particularly chilling scene where Robin strains to recall a memory she has that involves being ‘stood by the kitchen sink’, seeing a ‘dry moth’, and receiving a telephone call, the sink appears to be the fragment of this memory that she grasps at more than anything else. While that sink was overflowing in her kitchen she received the news that Helen ‘did not make it.’ The sink is the anchor that roots her to the explanatory moment she has been suppressing, as well as to the current moment with Helen. The moments are of course intrinsically linked – perhaps they even exist as the same moment if this is a hallucination – and the sink is the physical, visible object that ties them together.
We are left with question of how grief can be and should be dealt with. Helen’s accusation that Robin went too far by making her wish, that she should have dealt with grief like everyone else does, resonates. Did Robin go too far? Did she have any right to bring Helen back? Should she have asked for more than a day? Or perhaps the truth is that we would all have done exactly the same thing.