Two women wash ashore, soaked to the skin, sucking air into their lungs. One's shivering and wrung-out. Every so often, she spews up salt water. The other's more alive than ever, pumped with adrenaline, pulsating with the sense of having survived. Robyn (Neve McIntosh) and Helen (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) are lovers, and their rented boat just sank, leaving them stranded on some island or other, completely cut off from the rest of the world.
There's a kitchen sink sticking out of the slab of black rock that's Fred Meller's stage. The tap's running, and a radio, sticking out of the sand, plays indistinctly. A moth, inexplicably, is caught in Robyn's hair. We know from the off that all's not as it seems in Zinnie Harris's elusive and ethereal two-hander, but it takes a long while to work out what's what. Gradually it dawns on us and on Robyn: Helen's dead. Her hair got caught in the boat's motor; her liver was shredded to bits. This meeting must be imaginary – but is it wishful thinking or, to use Joan Didion's phrase, magical thinking?
Meet Me at Dawn offers a sense of the psychology of grief. Its setting shifts: real at first, unreal by the end, but neither one nor the other in between. Harris conveys the liminality of the grieving process. We know death is a definite line in time – someone alive so recently suddenly isn't – but we don't feel it as such, and if it's hard to make sense of a loved one's absence, it's because it's so often unfathomable. They still feel so present – or like they should be. You make two cups of tea on autopilot, or talk to the next room. It takes a while for the fact of death to set in, let alone the reality.
Harris starts by suggesting grief might be a fate worse than death, but as the play inches towards the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, it reaches a kind of equilibrium. Robyn and Helen's reunion isn't entirely happy: it rankles with old recriminations and regrets, with the betrayal of death and the privilege of survival. I was sometimes reminded of the two marooned men in Jon Fosse's I Am The Wind, but there's something distinctly female in the way anger co-mingles with acceptance here. Again and again, the two women fold their bodies together: two people wrapped in a single cardigan or sat, like stackable chairs, in each other's arms. They can seem so singular, and yet so far apart.
Meet Me at Dawn does sometimes feel meandering, even wilfully oblique in keeping its cards close to its chest, but even so, Orla O'Loughlin's eloquent and elegiac production is exquisitely performed. McIntosh, so superb in The Events here a few years ago, seems to fall apart and pull herself together simultaneously as Robyn, while Duncan-Brewster both bridles at the injustice of death and bristles at the enormity of it. Meet Me At Dawn allows the contradictions of death to coexist.