Review – The Meeting, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

The MeetingThe second of our three Chichester weekends this year saw Mrs Chrisparkle and me meet up with Professor and Mrs Plum for our usual fantastic lunch at the Minerva Brasserie – I can really recommend the Whiston Blanc de Blancs for a beautifully tasty sparkling English wine; it would perk up any social event! And the chicken is a real winner.

Meeting 3As usual it was to be a double-header at Chichester, and our first stop was at the Minerva for The Meeting. I think it’s fair to say that unless you are a Quaker, or are personally acquainted with a Quaker very well, you’re unlikely to know much about them. You don’t stumble across and visit their places of worship like you pop into an English Country Church in the Church of England tradition, for example. There aren’t big versions of their Meeting Houses like there are Cathedrals. And you don’t learn about their worshipping traditions, because, as far as I can make out, there aren’t any. The pinnacle of a great Quaker Meeting is to stay as silent as possible for the longest time.

Meeting 4That’s what makes Charlotte Jones’ new play, The Meeting, which has just finished its run at the Minerva theatre, so very intriguing. Set in a Sussex Quaker community in 1805, this small group of people get along by very much keeping themselves to themselves, marrying within the community, not venturing into “the town”; committed to the sanctity of human life, so they cannot fight at war; believing in equality so that even the most junior in the community would not address the most senior with any kind of reverent title. They are a Society of Friends and Friends are always equal. I learned a lot.

Meeting 8But just because this is a community of Quakers, it doesn’t mean they’re not subject to the same emotions, temptations, and desires as the rest of us. Take Rachel, for instance, living with her deaf mother Alice and her husband Adam, a stonemason; three sons she has borne him, each one stillborn or died at birth, each one named Nathaniel in the hope that they might eventually have a survivor. Biddy, on the other hand, married to James, the Elder of the community, is as fecund as the Indus Valley. I lost count how many children they had, but there’s a baby in tow at the moment and older daughter Tabitha is on the lookout for a husband.

Meeting 7One day, Rachel meets a soldier; a young man apparently invalided out of the army, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. His name? Nathaniel. Adam has only recently said he needs a young apprentice, as his strength and eye for detail are on the wane; Rachel sees it as a sign, and suggests that Nathaniel come back with her to meet Adam to see if he thinks he would be a good apprentice. Trouble is, he’s not a Quaker; but Rachel will teach him and encourage him, and, as far as she’s concerned, it’s just a little white lie for The Greater Good. But you know what might happen if an attractive older woman and a handsome young man start living under the same roof….. The gasp of shock from the audience at the final tableau before the interval told its own story!

Meeting 5The play very satisfyingly lets us in to see the secrets of this closed community, that few of us to this day know much about, so it piques our interest initially on the simple level of widening our general knowledge. But then we see the community face the age-old problem of a love-triangle, something we see in many plays and films over the course of a lifetime; and maybe indeed personally experience its pain and complications. It’s a very familiar event in a very unfamiliar setting. At times – as when Adam encouraged Nathaniel to accompany Rachel to keep her company – it reminded me of the previous play we’d seen at the Minerva, The Country Wife – although of course, much less raucous. Adam’s blissful ignorance about Nathaniel’s intentions towards Rachel and Lord Fidget’s similar encouragement to Horner to spend time with Lady Fidget are not a million miles apart.

Meeting 10It’s a fascinating play, beautifully and sensitively written, with much to say about friendship and faithfulness; forgiveness and redemption; expression and suppression. Dry stonewalls provide the backdrop to Vicki Mortimer’s simple but flexible set, a circular mosaic floor providing the setting for the meetings, where the attendees sit around on simple chairs in a circle; when the meeting is over they simply hook the backs of the chairs to a circular roof that descends and ascends to take the chairs out of the way. The costumes are uniformly puritanical grey and drab; I had to cut myself a little chuckle when Tabitha displays her “beautiful” wedding dress which is only fractionally less grey and drab than everything else the women wear. The only exception is the bright red of the soldier’s jacket which must, perforce, be hidden; let’s hope nobody finds it…

Meeting 6Charlotte Jones has written two great parts for women. Lydia Leonard is superb as Rachel; trying her best to be dutiful, bursting forth at the Quaker Meetings because she is full of ministry – or, in her case, emotion and expression which desperately needs an outlet; powerless to fight the attractive force that is the new young man under her roof. And Olivia Darnley is also brilliant as Biddy; on the one hand, the comedy gossip role, always irrepressible with good humour and accentuating the positive; on the other hand, with a past full of resentment and bitterness that she too finds it hard not to revisit.

Meeting 2Gerald Kyd plays Adam with stolid dignity and quiet assertiveness; he is a man whose emotions will always only be revealed behind closed doors. And there’s an excellent, assured performance from newcomer Laurie Davidson as Nathaniel, the seemingly decent and honest worker who turns into something of a sneak and a louse. There’s also the meaty role of Alice, powerfully performed by deaf actor Jean St Clair, eloquent in her sign language and amazingly articulate facial expressions. And there’s great support from Jim Findley as the well-meaning and responsible Elder James Rickman and Leona Allen as his enthusiastic and surprisingly self-confident daughter Tabitha.

Meeting 12We saw this on its final matinee after its three-week run, and sadly the theatre was only about 60% full, which isn’t a great audience turnout for Chichester. Those of us who were there really enjoyed it and were thoroughly carried away by its great story-telling and emotional charge. Whether or not there could be a life for this play in the future, I’m not sure. But I’m very pleased we managed to catch it, as it was a very rewarding and thought-provoking play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Oslo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 27th December 2017

OsloHere’s another production that’s now closed, so there’s nothing I can say to influence your buying or not buying a ticket. Having booked for the obviously crowd-pleasing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for the Wednesday matinee, I faced a different challenge for the evening. “What are we going to see?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle. “A play called Oslo,” I replied. “And what’s it about?” “It’s about a treaty between Israel and the PLO”. Silence. “How long is it?” “Err…just under…three hours.” Another silence. “It’s a National Theatre production”, I added hopefully. A third silence. “It’s had good reviews” I added. A fourth silence, finally broken by the plaintive question, “are you sure about this?”

Oslo - complex phone callsThe fact is, I wasn’t sure at all. The prospect of three hours of negotiations between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government hosted by Norwegian diplomats in a remote house outside Oslo bears all the signs of early grounds for divorce. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many laughs are there?

Oslo - a meeting of mindsBut that’s where you’re wrong, gentle reader, as indeed both of us were. There are loads of laughs. You wouldn’t describe it as a comedy, mind you; it’s a genuinely serious docudrama that takes us through the painstaking procedure of getting the two sides together under one roof to start talking about… well about anything really. That was the initial position that the diplomats took; if they could get individuals who take opposing views on matters of politics and nationalism just to talk about their families, or their fondness for waffles or a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, that’s got to be a start.

Oslo - Peter Polycarpou in an awkward moment of negotiationsAnd they were right. From such little acorns, as the saying goes… Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the social research Fafo Institute, and Mona Juul, official at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, go out on a limb and achieve the impossible. The audience follows, spellbound, as we see well-known political figures from both camps inexorably become involved with the talking; the arguments, the postulating, the climbdowns, the idiosyncrasies, the teasing, the jokes… Yes, jokes. Even with such high stakes, it’s fascinating to see how humour can diffuse an awkward situation, and reposition the brain into a more accepting and generous place. Get it wrong, however, and it can have the reverse effect; early in the negotiations Israeli historian and journalist Ron Pundak makes a joke at the expense of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie is infuriated. Fortunately for the peace process, Qurie is quite easily distracted by a raspberry waffle.

Oslo - Holst's not going to like itWriter J T Rogers stipulates in his text that the set design should be as uncluttered as possible and should work on our imaginations, so that the gaps between the scenes should be seamless. Designer Michael Yeargen took him at his word and created a very simple set, dominated by a grand pair of doors which can conceal – or reveal – negotiations on the other side. Endless wall panelling continued stage right to suggest the empty expanse of the outside world where various important figures might come and go, but we the audience never look in that direction, only focussing on the centre stage where all the important events occur. Characters also emerged from the auditorium, giving us a slightly unsettling impression of being at the heart of the negotiations. J T Rogers has his two Norwegian diplomats occasionally addressing the audience directly, emphasising that sense of us all being in it together.

Oslo - Mona and Terje together whilst Qurie looks onBecause this play very much relies on the power of the spoken word, it’s vital to have a strong, confident and eloquent cast – and this production had that completely nailed. Central to the action were Lydia Leonard as Mona and Toby Stephens as Larsen and they created a superb double act together. Mr Stephens adopted a convincing Scandinavian accent that didn’t sound too ridiculous and gave a brilliant portrayal of a man who’s comfortable with his own vanity but flexible enough to put things right when they go wrong, such as when the well-meaning housekeeper has prepared roast pork for dinner. Ms Leonard had a wonderful knowing look and a gently calculating air that suggested that she fully knew that deep down she was in charge. Two immaculate performances.

Oslo - Shimon PeresThere was also a very impressive performance by Howard Ward as Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, a man who’s not unfamiliar with the best cuts of meat served with the finest of wines, delightfully patronising and complacent until he discovers something he doesn’t like. That’s when he tends to release an uncontrollable string of four-letter words – actually the same four-letter word spoken several times, each time more frenzied than the last. Mr Ward managed to be both intimidatingly dramatic and absolutely hilarious at the same time.

Oslo - Savir has had a fewThe roles of the various negotiators were all immaculately performed and given full characterisation by a very talented team but there were two really stand-out performances. Philip Arditti, as Uri Savir, the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who is brought in to take the negotiations to a higher level, was both eerily scary and uproariously funny with his snappy delivery of Rogers’ elegant text. I’m still not quite sure how he, and/or the character, got away with that simple but effective impersonation of Arafat. Even more stunning was Peter Polycarpou’s performance as Ahmed Qurie; sinister, serious, intimidating, aggressive, yet a family man who lets down his guard and lets some light in where other angels fear to tread. And loves a waffle.

Oslo - Qurie and SavirEven though the play is set on a fixed date in the past – 1993 – the issues it raises are timeless and whilst there is tension in the Middle East, Oslo will always be relevant. Shortly before we saw the production, Donald Trump’s administration had declared it would regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Without taking any sides in the matter, watching the play my toes curled at the insensitivity of this decision, as you witness how significant and how symbolic such actions can be. If ever you needed confirmation on how diplomacy needs a light touch, this play brings it into sharp focus.

Oslo - Hassan AsfourIf Oslo hadn’t really worked as a play, because it was too wordy, or too serious, or too undramatic, I’d have classified it as a brave failure, which is something I usually prize way higher than a lazy success anyway. But there’s absolutely no element of failure to it all. It’s ground-breaking in the way it takes what sounds like dull as ditchwater source material and creates such an exciting, suspenseful, revealing and funny play. Huge congratulations all round. You can’t go and see it in London at the moment, but I can’t imagine it will be long before this play finds another life somewhere else. Keep your eyes peeled!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg