After eight years of silence, Charlotte Jones returns with a subtly moving play about a secluded group of Quakers in rural Sussex in 1805. With the Napoleonic Wars raging and a French invasion across the English Channel possible, this small pacifist community might seem to offer a sanctuary of love and harmony. But the fraternity in this branch of the Society of Friends proves fragile as jealousy and resentment threaten to split it apart like the breaking of the chalky limestone of the South Downs we see on stage.
Rachel and her deaf mother Alice converted to the faith after being given shelter by this Quaker community, but Rachel’s marriage to stonemason Adam Young has suffered from their three sons (each called Nathaniel) being stillborn. When on a visit to their graves she encounters a deserter from the army traumatised by war, who says his name is Nathaniel, Rachel sees it as a divine sign and persuades her husband to take him on as his apprentice. But is her eagerness motivated by maternal or (subconsciously) romantic yearnings?
Jones has written a fascinating play that explores both the conflicts between people and within themselves. As well as the love triangle that acts as a catalyst for the drama, there are tensions between staying silent and speaking out, self-restraint and self-expression, and the isolation of a self-contained religious community and active involvement in the wider secular world.
Quaker values of peace, equality, simplicity and truth are highlighted, in particular the relatively progressive attitude towards women. However, the self-protective, inward-looking approach is questioned and challenged through the restless spirit of Rachel, a proto-feminist who has often spoken on behalf of her mother but now is driven to voice her own views, including ‘ministering’ at the Quakers’ mainly silent meetings. It’s a play that balances the importance of honest, open communication, whether by oral (or written) word or sign language, with the suggestion that some things are best left unsaid.
Natalie Abrahami’s beautifully judged, understated production suggests the ritualised, plain living of the Quakers. Vicki Mortimer’s evocative design features a stone disc on the stage where the group gather in a circle for their meetings on wooden chairs, which are afterwards hung on hooks to the metal ring-like structure that descends from above. At moments of epiphany, the performers are illuminated by Paule Constable and Marc Williams’s shafts of light, while Ben and Max Ringham’s musical soundscape echoes the staccato hammer-tapping on stone.
Lydia Leonard sensitively conveys Rachel’s torn emotions of grief, guilt, frustration and determination as she struggles to find her purpose in life. Gerald Kyd also impresses as the staunchly selfless Adam, whose work of making tombstones ironically thrives in wartime. Laurie Davidson tempers Nathaniel’s subversive passion with a genuine desire to be accepted. And the Deaf actress Jean St Clair superbly expresses Alice’s loving concern for her daughter and others around her, seemingly more aware of what is going on than anyone else, as she touchingly tries to bring everyone together at the end.
After considerable success early on – notably with the multi-award-winning Humble Boy in 2001 (which was splendidly revived at the Orange Tree Theatre earlier this year) – Jones’s later plays received lukewarm reviews, and she turned away from the stage in favour of writing for film, TV and radio. The Meeting is a very different play from Humble Boy – less comedically multi-layered and more austerely focused – but they do share an interest in big, complex ideas and striking symbolism. It seems that Jones has re-discovered her theatrical voice.
The Meeting is at Chichester Festival Theatre until August 11th. For more details, click here.