Meek/Angry Alan review – Penelope Skinner probes into power, resistance and men's rights

Traverse/Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh
In two new works, the playwright contrasts how the disenfranchised struggle to wrest control from a system they cannot influence

They’re very different plays, but Penelope Skinner’s two contributions to the Edinburgh fringe share a fascination with power, radicalisation and resistance. In Meek, the author of The Village Bike imagines a post-catastrophe society where Christian dogma has become so oppressive that even the faithful rebel. Think The Handmaid’s Tale with viral videos.

In Angry Alan, she enters the real, but no less fanciful, world of the men’s rights movement, where a divorced dad finds a warped form of enlightenment to compensate for a perceived erosion of male power. In both cases, Skinner considers how the weak and disenfranchised struggle to wrest control from a system they can neither comprehend nor influence.

In Meek, Shvorne Marks plays Irene, a devout young woman detained after performing a song in a coffee bar. Getting to grips with what offence her breakup ballad has caused makes up the play’s narrative intrigue. In a bleak concrete prison, designed by Max Jones, she is visited by Scarlett Brookes as her best friend Anna and Amanda Wright as secular lawyer Gudrun, while piecing together how the adulterous affair she believed to be secret has leaked out and angered an intolerant authority.

“God is dead,” declares Irene at the start of Amy Hodge’s arid production for Headlong. Dead he may be, but his Old Testament values seem to be behind all the decisions of a totalitarian state. Singled out as an example to others, Irene stands accused of hating the holy spirit and “spreading a blasphemous message”. The danger here is of fighting against straw men: although you could force a parallel with repressive religious regimes elsewhere in the world, it’s hard to feel the anger of injustice at a state that doesn’t actually exist.

But in a sequence of short scenes and very short sentences, Skinner shows how a small act of resistance can turn an independent thinker into a political revolutionary. As with the Arab spring, the democratising power of social media doesn’t necessarily bring victory for the forces of justice, but resistance can still be fertile.

Sense of injustice … Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan.
Sense of injustice … Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Angry Alan is a more rewarding piece of writing because the central character’s sense of injustice is contentious. Played with butter-wouldn’t-melt amiability by an excellent Donald Sage Mackay, Roger could be your next-door neighbour, charming, even-tempered and tolerant. Like Irene in Meek, he goes through a process of radicalisation, but in this case, his consciousness-raising is based on false reasoning. Having stumbled across the Angry Alan website, fictional but not exaggerated, he falls for the myth of a gynocentric conspiracy that blames feminism for his reduced status in the world.

Our tendency is to laugh when he tells us “ordinary men are really beginning to suffer”, just as it is when we see the po-faced men’s rights videos that intercut Skinner’s own production. In a week when a Japanese medical school admitted to doctoring the results of its entrance examinations to favour male candidates, the feminist struggle is clearly not over.

But there’s something about Roger’s cool-headed reasoning that quickly pushes the play beyond easy satire. He’s not a monster. He’s even supportive of his girlfriend taking a women’s studies class. His rationale, however misguided, is honestly felt. And although the play comes to a hasty and melodramatic end, it shows how the force of a compelling narrative might throw any of us into a spiral of self-deception.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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