Monday 30 July 2018

Theatre Review: The Meeting (Chichester Festival Theatre)

(Photo credit: Helen Maybanks)

"Sometimes I hear my voice/And it's been here/Silent all these years..." Those Tori Amos lyrics may come to mind when watching The Meeting, the fine new play by Charlotte Jones which is premiering at Chichester's Minerva Theatre, in a gripping production by Natalie Abrahami. Grammars of sign and silence, and the challenges of self-expression, especially as they pertain to women's experience, are as central to The Meeting as they are to Amos's iconic song. The play, which unfolds in a Quaker community in Sussex during the Napoleonic Wars, offers a feminist perspective on faith, belonging and outsiderness, and, following the Orange Tree's hugely enjoyable revival of Humble Boy a few months ago, it's a further reminder of how much Jones's wise and humane voice has been missed on UK stages in recent years.

That said, Jones is not a dramatist who repeats herself, and The Meeting is strikingly different to anything that she's written before, mostly eschewing colloquial and comic elements for an empathetic examination of community vs. individual desires. It's a play that does not shy away from big emotions, achieving, as it progresses, a near-operatic intensity in the Minerva's intimate space. There's nothing remotely modish about the piece, but since religious concerns and contexts tend to be sidelined in contemporary drama, there's undoubtedly a subversive streak to the frank engagement with those issues as explored here.

Abrahami's production avoids ponderousness, though, keeping the proceedings pacy and taut, as Jones uses the familiar trope of the arrival of a stranger to disrupt the status quo. Already questioning the community's emphasis on silence, and even its pacifist stance, the play's protagonist, Rachel, lives with her deaf mother Alice and her stonemason husband Adam. Accustomed to being her mother's voice since childhood, Rachel has turned to the Quakers' regular meetings to express herself but her volubility is viewed with some suspicion. She finds herself unsettled further by the appearance of a soldier, Nathaniel, apparently discharged from the army. Rachel invites the stranger into their home where he assists Adam in his work, gradually assuming the roles of both surrogate son and romantic interest.

Through her focus on an outsider within an outsider community, a woman who was not born into the Quaker faith and who struggles to find a way to be useful, to be good, within its clearly defined parameters, Jones skillfully conveys the contradictions of the community, with its insistence upon gender equality yet its scepticism about a woman speaking up, and its emphasis on contemplative silence yet reluctance to engage with the hearing-impaired Alice.

She's created a complex heroine here, and, as Rachel finds herself deeper and deeper in a moral muddle, Lydia Leonard's compelling performance catches the heart; restless and conflicted, with her expressive back turned to the audience she might be a study for Vilhelm Hammershøi. As Alice, Jean St. Clair carries her scenes through look and gesture and establishes a great rapport with Leonard; theirs is a mother/daughter bond formed through nonverbal communication (and disrupted by a male presence) that can't help but recall Ada and Flora's relationship in The Piano. The actresses' excellent performances are well supported by good work from Laurie Davidson as the ambiguous soldier; from Gerald Kyd, a strong, charismatic presence as Adam; and especially from Olivia Darnley, who moves memorably from gaiety to grievance in a vivid performance as Rachel's garrulous friend.

Aided by beautiful lighting by Paule Constable and Marc Williams, Vicki Mortimer's set, with its stones and circles, conjures place and period with economy, while Ben and Max Ringham's sound design combines subtely interpolated natural sounds with an unsettling aura of dissonance - a futuristic hum - in the between-scenes interludes. A few plot elements might look hokey on paper, but the sincerity of the writing carries the day, and the dramatic arc is surprising, satisfying and, ultimately, powerfully affecting. Jones has always been particularly great at endings, and the conclusion of The Meeting - poetic and sad and embracing and affirmative all at once - is another example, encapsulating the play's mature vision, and the sympathetic "tender hand" that it extends both to the desire of the individual to break free and to the capacity of a fractured community to remake itself.

The Meeting runs at the Minerva until 11 August. 

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