Reviewed – 25th February 2020
“Without being too polemical Greer gives clarity to a very difficult discussion with plenty of humour and humanity”
Throughout discussions popularised by the #MeToo social media campaign, there seems to have been a disconnect within the idea that since pretty much all women have experienced sexual assault in one form or another, it stands to reason that a whole bunch of men, and not just a handful of evil predators, have been doing it.
Perhaps the difficulty in swallowing this pill is due to the shades of horror that fall within the sexual assault bracket: no, not every man is Harvey Weinstein, but that doesn’t mean that a crime hasn’t been committed and that a woman doesn’t have the right to speak up.
Gillian Greer’s Meat seeks to navigate this very tricky arena. Max (India Mullen) has arranged to meet up with her college boyfriend Ronan (Sean Fox) to let him know she’s written about the night he assaulted her and that it’s going to be published. But Ronan claims he remembers it very differently, or is it that he doesn’t remember it at all? He’s a bit hazy on the subject.
This isn’t about whether Ronan is a villain. Rather it’s about recognising that he is, as Max puts it, “a good guy who did a shit thing.”
A story like this requires a lot of personality and Greer delivers. Mullen and Fox have a well-worn patter that feels natural and affectionate even when they’re fighting. Much of the script is taken up with friendly banter, giving the audience plenty of space to place Ronan’s transgression within a wider picture.
Jo (Elinor Lawless), manager of Ronan’s restaurant and interested party, is an excellent addition to the script because whilst she doesn’t play a pivotal role, nonetheless her character is absolutely necessary, as witness and judge to the night’s events. We’re never led to the brink of disbelieving Max, but our loyalties waver throughout, and Lawless serves as an excellent barometer in this regard. Her comic delivery is also masterful, near-on stealing the show. Set in Ronan’s fancy new meat restaurant (designed by Rachel Stone), animal carcases provide a disturbing backdrop and a constant reminder that we are in Ronan’s domain, making Max’s position all the more uncomfortable as she tries to stand her ground.
Instead of clearing the table between courses, food is thrown on the floor and smeared on the walls, which makes sense when Ronan comes to flip the table in a rage, but not a minute sooner. It’s not terribly distracting, but there just doesn’t seem to be any reason, beside it being difficult to artfully splatter food all over the stage in one table flip without covering the front row in foie gras.
The narrative drags a little in the middle, leaving me to wonder if there’s any more to say on the matter once the premise is set out, but the story does pick up and develop, and whilst there are no real surprises, the plot is- forgive the pun- surprisingly meaty.
As directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson, Meat is very much a story for the current climate. Without being too polemical Greer gives clarity to a very difficult discussion with plenty of humour and humanity.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Alex Brenner
Theatre503 until 14th March
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 3rd October 2019
“fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about”
Though it might be said of many a time in history, the debate on power distribution seems particularly prevalent at this political moment, and the argument between generations seems louder than ever, with terms such as ‘generation snowflake’ being bandied about. Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, as directed by Matthew Illife, is a timely discussion between young and old, majority and minority, and radical and moderate.
Zoe (Moronkę Akinola), a young black student, and her professor Janine (Janie Dee), a white woman of obvious privilege, are poring over a first draft of Zoe’s thesis. What begins as an interesting discussion between two enthusiasts morphs into a gritty debate on the innately imperialist structure of academia and history’s stress on the white experience. The argument becomes personal very quickly, as is made clear to us by a soundtrack (Kate Marlais) of a low thrum and a heartbeat, confirming that things have turned nasty. This is pretty much the only sound used throughout, appearing again halfway through the second act, and it seems a bit unnecessary and patronising.
That being said, tension rises so early in the play that it’s perhaps necessary to continuously raise the bar. Whilst Zoe clearly has cause to be frustrated with the system, Akinola plays her more like a petulant child for the first half. Stomping around her professor’s office, avoiding eye contact, it feels more like a fight between a mother and her teenage daughter than between an esteemed academic and a promising student. The argument’s peak is lost in her almost constant state of fury where it might have had more punch if she had deferred her outrage slightly.
Akinola is quite a force on stage, however, and whilst her character choices don’t necessarily serve the play, her commitment to the role is tremendous.
Dee’s American accent is a little shaky and it gets in the way of her delivery for the first twenty minutes or so, but regardless, it feels as though she might have ad-libbed half the play, so natural are her mannerisms and emotional turns.
With an audience on three sides and an office-desk setting (Rachel Stone), the staging is always going to be tricky. The solution, it seems, is to keep both performers moving at all times, circling each other like cage fighters, in order to avoid having someone’s back to the audience throughout. It feels unlikely in this particular scenario, but maybe that’s how professors’ office hours are in the US?
No matter how it’s staged, the text itself will always, I think, make for uncomfortable viewing, pitting idealism against pragmatism; negotiating for improvements versus demanding immediate change. It’s an interesting discussion, but I’m not convinced these were the characters to have it: Though she isn’t without nuance, Zoe seems a slightly unfair and unkind representation of a completely sound point of view where Janine, though certainly flawed, comes off as charming and reasonable. It’s not a fair fight.
There’s no doubt The Niceties brings certain necessary and urgent conversations to the table, and whilst it doesn’t quite strike an even tone, it is fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Ali Wright
Finborough Theatre until 26th October
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: