FringeReview UK 2018
The Meeting is the first full-scale play of Charlotte Jones for over a decade, though The Diva In Me premiered at the Brighton Festival in 2010. Directed by Nathalie Abrahami at Chichester’s Minerva, Vicki Mortimer’s strikingly simple design involves a stone-coloured circle; and above an ingenious flying saucer of a ring ascending and descending. Its whirr, as with Ben and Max Ringham’s soundscape, sounds a futuristic note. Light in this dusty monochrome from Paule Constable and Marc Williams is both evocative and shining witness.
There’s sermons in stones. And in Quaker meetings silence is often all that needs saying; and sometimes breaking that silence with a small hammer.
The steady knap and tup of sound in Charlotte Jones’ first play for eight years – The Meeting set in 1805 on the Sussex coast -suggests the stonemason husband of the protagonist Rachel. But it’s a chipping away at Jones’ theatrical silence that so many pick up on since her run of successes culminating in the National’s Humble Boy of 2001, triumphantly revived at the Orange Tree this year; and of The Woman in White for Andrew Lloyd-Webber in 2004. This perception ignores Brighton Festival’s one-woman play The Diva in Me of 2010, about the creative re-emergence of actor, soprano and unnerving vocal imitator Philippa Stanton, who also stars in it. But that London-shunning work, a metaphor in itself too, underlines theatre’s loss to TV and radio since a bruising period over a decade ago.
The Meeting – directed by Nathalie Abrahami at Chichester’s Minerva – also centres on a woman struggling out of silence to witness in words. It’s at once a homecoming and a challenge. Jones enjoys a gift of combining complex themes in a compelling, usually un-tricksy way. Her storytelling’s so strong the virtuosity rarely draws attention to itself.
Vicki Mortimer’s strikingly simple design involves a stone-coloured circle as Meeting house, home and a barren everywhere. Tables and chairs in natural wood evoke Shaker-styles but evade period. There’s crates of stones upstage shrouding one exit, stones strewn about; and above an ingenious flying saucer of a ring ascending and descending where Quakers collect or stow their chairs. Its whirr, as with Ben and Max Ringham’s neatly etiolated soundscape, sounds a futuristic note. Light in this dusty monochrome from Paule Constable and Marc Williams is both evocative and shining witness. The key Quaker sentence in this play ‘I hold you in the light’ means light’s a crucial counterpoint. Five other actors with role-names swell the numbers though don’t speak individually.
Here, Lydia Leonard’s Rachel daughter of Alice who’s been deaf since two, has long found refuge in a rural Quaker community, married stonemason Adam and borne three stillborn boys, all buried as Nathaniel. Deaf actor Jean St Clair slowly assumes authority in badinage with Leonard’s character then dire warning. Their sign language colloquy seems some of the loudest chatter on stage. They don’t belong; they’re still unquiet.
Despite relatively enlightened attitudes, Rachel speaks too much at meeting for Jim Findley’s elder James Rickman, a strong-voiced touchstone who nevertheless doesn’t stay into Adam’s territory. Indeed The Meeting’s a play of containment till it isn’t.
Jones sets up tense expectations in Act One with Rickman’s warning that it’s particularly dangerous now that 1805’s seen a British victory. Quakers feel no part of it; their failure to celebrate in debauched junketings is another reason the populace could turn. There’s internal contradictions too: Adam makes a profit from empty grave headstones for fallen soldiers – as Rachel then a soldier, points out. (He also declares Adam can’t read what he incises, though later Adam reads a letter, a textual wrinkle not worked through).
It’s a slow burn partly since no populace really menaces them, with one exception. By contrast despite the community’s loving-tenderness, tensions simmer particularly between women. Rickman’s far younger wife Biddy is initially a delighted counterbalance to all this warm gloom: never speaking in Meeting she can’t stop whilst she’s out. Befriending Rachel though is a conscious act of will as we discover. To Rachel’s ‘my womb is stone’ Biddy’s counter ‘you are the rare flower amongst us’ is as supportive as it gets.
But Biddy’s weighed down too, despite her brood, notably sixteen-year-old Tabitha – Leona Allen who lends a flash of brio to the hunkered-down company she always appears in. Olivia Darnley’s Biddy though describes a more fraught verbal arc (she talks a lot), from chatterbox to the verge of twisting back ripostes like ‘that’s devil’s talk’ seething quietly. It takes skill to shepherd so many words apparently not to the purpose, to somewhere.
So when Rachel encounters Laurie Davidson, a deserter identifying simply as Nathaniel it catalyses the action. Persuading Gerald Kyd’s Adam to take him on the much-needed apprentice who should have been his own son, the man’s name doesn’t escape the couple. Davidson’s literally battle-scarred PTSD soldier is sick of killing he tells Rachel. She hides his redcoat, echoing the red thread she once wore on her finger to tug at her deaf mother, a transference somewhat muted here. It’s not the only transference.
Nathaniel’s past though might prove anathema. Davidson’s edgily sympathetic portrait darkens and lightens in glints. He genuinely reveres Adam as a ‘second father’, proves adept at masonry, and almost against himself drawn into community. His duplicity’s more than compounded though when he and Rachel slowly circle each other – there’s much of this in the circular space – as he invents sign languages of his feelings for her, and she answers it. Suddenly the play’s charged.
Davidson’s superb, in how gentleness turns to the damaged soldier then back again; quite a discovery, he complements Leonard which is saying a lot. No less does Kyd. strong-voiced, granitic yet tender; it’s a fine performance particularly impressive when cracked open in conflict.
Act Two’s unravelment of Rachel doesn’t proceed in the way you’d expect. Conventional jealousies – Rachel’s for Nathaniel’s wandering eye and new choices, or potentially Adam’s – aren’t what spark the explosion though they compound it. That’s a murderous sub-current elsewhere leading to crisis and a surprise benediction.
Jones, who sat in Meeting herself for five years, anatomizes truth-telling and truth to self. Leonard’s both agonized and radiant, watchfully authoritative and vulnerable: ‘stone’ here no synonym for strength but barrenness. It’s a sermon that has to be as knapped out and released in her as much as one of Adam’s gravestones. There’s times when silent witness proves less true to self. Leonard’s commanding even when absent: you feel an ache in the waiting company.
Some telescopically frantic actions in Act Two might seem hard to credit, and there’s been a little judicious pruning towards the very end, not affecting the action. The climax might settle further though it’s already more satisfying than several conventional options, and Jones prepares for it.
Abrahami also telescopes pace which quickens in Act Two then in the light-filled epilogue allows St Clair a command and centrality denied her throughout. Quieter, less overtly virtuosic than say Humble Boy, The Meeting juggles ideas as adeptly, and heart more fully perhaps than any Jones play. There’s every reason to celebrate Jones’ return to the stage, and hope she’ll not desert it.