Theatre review: Meet Me at Dawn, Arts Centre Melbourne

Losing your bearings in this play about grief and loss.
Meet Me at Dawn. Two women on a small stage set of a two sides of a broken down wall (with a door in one and window in the other), blue sand beneath. One woman is seated leaning back and the other is standing and gesturing with her palms face up.

Melbourne Theatre company’s Meet Me at Dawn is a beguiling and curious drama that pivots in liminal spaces: between life and death, reality and fantasy, and hope and despair.

It’s a two-hander effort and the initial premise seems fairly straightforward: two lovers are stranded on an island of sorts, after a boating accident. They are cold and shell-shocked but while Helen (Sheridan Harbridge) is buzzy with the exhilaration of having made it to land, Robyn (Jing-Xuan Chan) is more circumspect and nauseated. After ascertaining that danger is in abeyance, the two begin to try and pierce together the events that led them there. A Beckettian sense of futility prevails.

Soon it becomes obvious that, even in their extreme disorientation, other things are awry. ‘What do you do when you are marooned on a tiny sandbank with your girlfriend and she starts to go crazy? That is a question for you angels,’ laments Helen, but is Robyn the only one deluded and affected by concussion? And, furthermore, who is this other strange, unhelpful woman who lingers in the distance – what role does she play in this tragedy?

Their circumstances are indeed mysterious, but Zinnie Harris’ script is deliberately obfuscatory – there will be no easy explanation granted as to the parameters of her characters’ predicament. Instead, like a teasing psychological thriller, Harris makes us wait, well into the final third of her play before the artfully scattered pieces come together. And when it does, the denouement is devastating.

Spoilers aside, the fact that Meet Me at Dawn references Orpheus and Eurydice in its publicity material is a significant clue as to the emotional bond and ultimate fate of Helen and Robyn. This is a modern retelling of the famous Greek myth, with a twist that digs right into the heart.

Harbridge, who impressed mightily when she appeared in Prima Facie in her last turn at the Arts Centre, and Chan, best known in SBS’s The Family Law, put in sterling performances in this otherworldly, metaphysical exploration of memory, love and loss. The squabbling banter, tenderness, fear and paranoia between them are played out with earnestness and sincerity.

Meet Me at Dawn is an hallucinatory trip of a play, a sombre riff on grief and how it shatters and destabilises. Romanie Harper’s set is simple: just a broken down façade of a building against which the women find themselves, and gravelling blue sand underfoot. It could be a dreamscape, for this is a play not grounded in literal realities, but in fluctuating and deteriorating mental states: from heightened ecstasies to howling lows.

However, despite the solid acting, the narrative flounders after the introductory preamble and the concluding beats. Even with a short play time of 75 minutes sans interval, there are moments the repetitive, circular script could have been edited to ensure a tighter run.

Its verbose, talking heads structure lends a static quality to Meet Me at Dawn; aside from director Katy Maudlin steering the actors, there is not much dynamic movement and interest at play. Far too much emphasis too, is weighted on symbols like the dead moth and the dripping tap, which lose their power after one too many mentions.

Certainly the pay-off reward for your attention does eventually come, but the lacklustre pacing in the middle section detracts from full engagement.

Overall, it is the acting that elevates the play: the nuances that Harbridge and Chan bring to this puzzle of love and death.

Meet Me at Dawn by Zinnie Harris
Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
Director: Katy Maudlin
Set and Costume Designer: Romanie Harper
Lighting Designer: Amelia Lever-Davidson

Composer and Sound Designer: Daniel Nixon
Voice and Text Coach: Geraldine Cook-Dafner

Intimacy Coordinator: Isabella Vadiveloo
Cast: Sheridan Harbridge, Jing-Xuan Chan 

Meet Me At Dawn will be performed until 16 March 2024.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy