Review: The Meeting, The Minerva, Chichester

It is widely acknowledged that silence speaks when words can’t and that silence is a source of great strength.

Please. Don’t spoil our good silence with your thoughts’, pleads Adam.

Scenes later, Rachel responds, ‘I fear that sitting in silence is not enough‘.

Therein lies the predicament of theatre and the achievement of Natalie Abrahami’s inspirational direction of Charlotte Jones’ The Meeting, which closes at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester, on Saturday.

In theatre, so often, the audience are asked to remain quiet and listen. Although the twentieth-century saw the development of theatre that demands a reaction, Natalie Abrahami allows us to make our own decisions as to how far we exercise our minds in the offered silences. As theatre-goers, our challenge is to close our minds to the outside world and to follow the characters into the world they assume. At times in The Meeting this became all consuming and yet Charlotte Jones’ masterful and elegant dialogue can’t help but speak out beyond the world of the text.

In The Meeting, that world is ‘a rural Quaker community in Sussex in 1805′ and here we learn the values of quaker rituals: pacifism, openness, simplicity and truth. Quaker meetings honour stillness and the silence in stillness. As we enter the auditorium, birds chirrup and the cool colours of the polished stone circle absorb our distracted thoughts and focus our minds on the space. The neat circular plinth centre stage sits beneath two concentric hoops in the air, like giant lampshades, concentrating the light onto the plinth and the circle of eleven chairs evenly spaced around it. At the edge of the circle, chalky soil and stones litter the space. Further chalk has been quarried and placed into large cages at the back of the stage, creating a wall of stone: the fortification of the Sussex coast facing invasion; the fortification of the Quaker community against violence; the fortification of the heart against conflict.

As the audience gathers, hushed into contemplation and reverence, so do the meeting attendees. Dressed in natural hues – creams, greys and blues – they resonate with the landscape, a picture of calm and serenity in the pool of god’s light. The simplicity of Quaker life is abundant in every aspect of Vicki Mortimer’s design. All distractions are removed, allowing focus on the importance of listening. This is a world away from our complex, technology and communication fuelled lives.

Lydia Leonard leads the cast as Rachel Young, a wife, daughter and mother to three still-born sons: a woman ‘burdened with too much language‘. ‘Born into her mother’s silence’, Rachel is a communicator from birth, providing a stable rod and a voice for her deaf and electively mute mother, Alice, played heart-warmingly by Jean St Clair.  Despite their being accepted into the Quaker community when Rachel married Adam (Gerald Kyd), no efforts are made to interact with Alice. The community deem her to be sweet and doting. Adam blesses her for treating him well in preparing his meals and yet he makes no effort to sign with her as we see Rachel doing. The intrinsic parent-child bond is palpable. ‘Without me‘ says Rachel, ‘her thoughts are nothing – they go nowhere‘. Alice, like her daughter is a strong and loyal. However, she is the observer of the play, cast to the periphery of the community, and it is clear that her heart pounds with loneliness: Rachel’s channelled communication not fulfilling her need for acceptance.

Rachel struggles, not only with her mother’s silence but with her own unyielding thoughts. She is compelled to speak out in meetings and minister to her people, permitted to do so as Quaker communities entrust fairness and equality to all, regardless of hierarchy or gender. And yet, concerns are raised about her overzealous need to share. As some try to stifle her, Rachel wrestles with Nietzsche’s belief that all truths that are kept silent become poisonous. 

Rachel’s defiance is a catalyst for division in the community. She brings a new member into the pack and with him come lies and sin. Unable to contain her untruths in silence, she attempts to run from her sins, leaving ‘stone deaf‘ Alice voicing the horrors of pain when a parent child bond is snapped. This exquisite scene is sensitively handled to drive the audience’s reaction without a sniff of sentimentality.

Our emotions are guided throughout by a rhythmic soundscore echoing heartbeats, time ticking away and the uneasy chime of the pick against the chalkface; the audience is carried from tranquility to terror. I laughed, I cried, I held my breath, felt peace and welled up with emotion.

Charlotte Jones deliberately places every word in testament to the power of language while Abrahami ensures the well picked cast deliver each with reverence to the significance of voice.

Leonard’s presence is rooted by an intense humanity that echoes Rachel’s loyalty to truth. Her voice is weighted with candour, her stature strong with veracity. Her hands tell Rachel’s story – when she walks, when she talks without signing – they quiver with unrest, desperate to be heard themselves. Alongside Kyd, the pair epitomise strength; a couple toughened by their experiences and emboldened by their unity. This only makes it more harrowing when they crumble like the chalk around them, sending St Clair’s Alice into unbearable agony – a silent cry that we do not want to witness.

The supporting cast bring warmth and humour to the story. Olivia Darnley’s rebellious Biddy is pitched with sharp attention to detail in every eloquently presaged word. ‘Do not peace and harmony begin in the home? In the love between a husband and wife, a mother and her child?‘ she asks provocatively. Jones constructs such brilliant contrasts through themes of love and war; truth and lies; belonging and expulsion; isolation and community; silence and communication. Each magnified in the conceit of three powerful female characters.

The Meeting cannot rest in silent transience. It twitches, like Rachel’s unsettled hands and heart, eager to speak out. So let’s hope a transfer will be announced soon. Jones writes: ‘For another person it might be an ordinary stone – with absolutely nothing to recommend it.’ But there is plenty to recommend about this play and I hope it speaks out to others as it did so powerfully to me.

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Script Reading: Sea Wall by Simon Stephens

During a brilliantly informative lecture at the RSC’s Big Director’s Weekend last month, Rob Swain (Programme Director for Birkbeck’s MFA Directing course) advised us on the first reading of a script. Read it free of all pretences and without making notes, overthinking or planning, he said. He admitted the challenge in this; directors and creatives naturally want to start imagining the world of the play and how it would be conveyed. However, Swain’s point was that we ought to sit and read straight through, uninterrupted in order to receive the play for the first time as an audience will hear it for the first time. Never again, he warned, after that first reading, will you be able to hear it afresh. And first impressions do count in theatre. Very much so. For first impressions in theatre are often, also, last impressions. And when all the elements of an exceptional play come together, they have the potential to make lasting impressions too.

Simon Stephens

So, having marvelled at numerous Simon Stephens plays, I decided to pick up one I hadn’t yet read and to follow Swain’s directive. I knew that Sea Wall has been critically acclaimed for a recent revival (I don’t have the luxury of being able to get to half the things I’d love to see over in London) and I had recently read Lyn Gardner’s column on the value of short plays. This, I thought, would be the perfect play to trial the exercise.

So, I sat and read.

Swain’s follow up instruction was to reflect on my initial reaction to the reading: the potential first reaction that an audience would experience on receiving the same information.

*Spoiler alert* If you haven’t read the play, it’s 9 pages long and worth stopping and doing so now. (It’s available online via a very easy search).

The following details my responses while reading but recorded after completing the read. Details about the play may be referenced.

Response 1/ You can’t stop your mind from wandering. My mind, although attempting to focus solely on the story Alex was telling, slid into the age-old question over monologues. How long can you expect an audience to sit and listen to a monologue for? Especially a monologue where the playwright (“always honour the playwright’s intentions” said every drama teacher in the land) requests a bare stage and natural light. A monologue that’s well formed but where, let’s face it, not a lot happens.

Response 2/ Two thirds of the way in, the Director in me was itching to work with an actor to really explore the naturalistic dialogue that Stephens crafts so effortlessly, tripping into tangents, ebbing and flowing between topics, like the waves lapping the sand, and elaborating on randomly inconsequential details. However, I knew that this was the reaction of my inner directing-geek, hungry to chew on some gentle, unsuspecting prose. Whereas, my aforementioned wandering mind was well aware that the direction would need something special to keep the audience engaged. That is, unless the last three pages had something different on offer to, say, stir things up…

Then WHAM! Response 3/ Forget directing. Forget anything. How was I going to sleep tonight after reading that? How could I rest easy with an overactive imagination and my own daughter lying asleep in the next room? How could I possibly consider directing this when the thought of it happening makes me feel sick? Fills me with dread. Touches a nerve way too close to home. How could you advertise this production to an audience without giving away what happens? Because Swain was right. This. This is how the audience feel on first encounter and this is what the director is responsible for: the creation and preservation of this immediate, unexpected response. I really hope you stopped and read the play so you know what I’m talking about.

A lesson from my own drama teacher sprung to mind: you cannot play Juliet as a tragic heroine. Juliet is a young girl in love who does not know her fate. As an actress, you need to let her live in the moment, blissfully unaware of what’s to come.

This advice struck me for the poignancy of its severe opposition to Alex’s tale. Alex confronts the audience directly to tell them his story. The very raw story of what happened to him, three weeks before. There is no hiding from his fate. His fate is the beginning, middle, end and reason for the story. The important factor in his telling of the story is that, while he knows the outcome, the audience do not. Unless they are returning for a second time and, thus, filled with the dread of knowing what will happen and that nobody can stop it. And therein lies the importance of Swain’s first reading, in parallel to Alex’s discovery of the Sea Wall… Once you’ve seen it, once you know, you can’t un-imagine it or deny its existence. Your perspective is tainted.

So, now I’m ready for a re-read with all the things I now know in mind. It will change the way I receive every word. I’m not even sure if I can handle this.

What a gloriously brilliant, harrowingly difficult and clever, clever script.

I have since read this review of the revival, which sums up the stunning performance. Now to find that downloadable recording!

Review: Miss Littlewood, RSC, Stratford

How apt that the culmination of the first day of the RSC’s Big Director’s weekend should end with a preview of Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman’s Miss Littlewood. And what a treat it was.

Performed on the beautifully intimate thrust at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford Upon Avon, where a mock platform slides back and forth from behind the pros arch to become the meta-stage for Littlewood’s story. The evening tiptoes down the path behind theatrical pioneer, Joan Littlewood, dabbling in the highlights of her working and personal life and drawing on autobiographical material, with a suitable touch of bias that is not permitted to go unnoticed.

The set is not lavish but deceptive in its seeming simplicity and put to good use through the incredible number of transitions that Whyman has wrestled into refinement. Whyman’s direction is thorough and impressive. The cast are kept busy and are endlessly resourceful. Actor-musicianship and multi-rolling are showcased with a superb sense of tongue-in-cheek, not least by the talented supporting cast including Amanda Hadingue, who takes on a number of male and female cameos, while adding musical accompaniment on her violin. There is more than a touch of Brechtian influence and an honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style. Having said this, the attention to authenticity in the time-appropriate costumes was a real credit to the Wardrobe department and I can’t begin to imagine how many shoes were used in this production, not least by the delightful Emily Johnstone in her ever-changing roles.

An honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style.

Littlewood is played by seven actresses in total. Each superb in their own right and supported by a small but well-versed ensemble company. True to Kenyon’s script note, the seven Joans ‘should be diverse in a number of ways – age, ethnicity, appearance, accent -and no one should be concerned about doing an impersonation’. Each assumes the role through the gestic application of a hat (‘a costume. Or a weapon.’) and delivers their character as directed by the real Joan (played by Claire Burt with tenacity, scrutiny and a naughty twinkle in her eye) who presents her life as she wants to see it, even attempting to avoid the moments she wants to forget. Each Joan represented a different era and was charmingly replaced with the same careless attitude that the real Miss Littlewood adopted in recasting her plays at the last moment. Their harmonious co-existence was a lesson in depth of character as each actress presented so much more than just one of the multi-facets of Joan and served to remind us that Joan Littlewood was a representative of the people, an anybody, with a desire for theatre to be seen by and represent every man and woman.

Kenyon, no doubt, had a battle selecting what to keep and lose from Littlewood’s dense biography. While some audience members felt aspects were missing, the teacher in me was delighted to see this inspirational figure immortalised in a production that reflected her own working style. A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

Although dubbed ‘a new musical’, I fear that musical theatre fans would be disappointed. The songs are poignant but not moving and some of the individual singing voices are full of character but not finesse. This is not a criticism – style over substance fits the bill here and, like the era-influenced dance routines, the audience can enjoy the lightness of touch rather than an over-choreographed showcase. Littlewood was a fabled communist after all: ‘Profligacy is in bad taste’, offers Joan 2, flirting with language.

My heart sang with gratitude as I smiled my way through so much of this utterly fun production. A lesson about a director and, indeed, a meta-lesson in directing itself. Whether it will extend to enchant beyond those in the industry is the question. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but as Joan says to her first appointed actress ‘don’t like what you see? Do something better.’

Miss Littlewood runs until 4th August 2018 at The Other Place, RSC, Stratford.

Doing what I love: a personal how and why of Directing

Where do you even start? It’s a question I’ve often been asked by audience members who enjoy their own role in the theatre set-up but find it hard to work out quite how and what the director does to create what the audience sees on stage.

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I recently enjoyed the honour of directing Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady for The Cotswold Savoyards, working alongside the terrifically enthusiastic cast at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. I had grown up loving the film and had seen the show on stage as a child. As a teenager I devoured George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion, which inspired me to learn about phonetics and language and then, a decade later, to dissect and analyse the play with my Year 8 English students. By the time I came to direct the musical, in my 30s, I knew my favourite lines, the overarching themes and metaphors, the character objectives and motivation – and yet I was still hungry to delve further through physicalising the world that the characters inhabit.

Read, read, ponder and read

My starting point is always to read aloud and hear the voices of the characters so that I can start to understand what they want and how they interact. Before casting, I like to have drawn up character sketches and an overall vision statement for my aims in producing any show. I have seen numerous shows where directors or companies have penny of ambition but where ideas jar because they lack a core understanding of what is going on in the hearts and minds of the characters and, importantly, the playwright, pinning it all together.

In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle undertakes a series of lessons to improve her prospects of becoming a lady in a flower shop ‘instead of selling flowers on the corner of Tottenham Court Road but they won’t take [her] unless [she talks] more genteel’. Eliza’s lessons bring about a change that Shaw saw as a metaphor for the time: the world poised for great changes instigated by the two world wars which served to break down the class divide and lay the foundations for a future with improved gender equality.  My Fair Lady really is a musical underpinned with substance!

I was so excited to work, not only with a very able and committed pool of actors in the leading roles, but with worthwhile material that we could get something from. Don’t misunderstand me, My Fair Lady has its imperfections but, in musical theatre, you don’t often find the depth of character or well-shaped dialogue that it boasts either.  In rehearsals, we really could unpick the meaning behind the dialogue, the songs and the relationships to highlight that Eliza Doolittle is so much more than a rags to riches Cinderella. She has the ambition of a suffragette and only lacks in society’s definition of intelligence because she is a product of her experiences. In her, we see both rebellion and submission but also a flame that keeps burning quietly and refuses to let her be overlooked. Just as Pygmalion violated his ‘ivory maid’ with his sculptor’s hands, Higgins’ abominable behaviour towards Eliza is a violation that is equally undermining. We side with Eliza out of sympathy and investigate whether we can eventually warm to Higgins as he (along with Pickering) goes from being ‘a pretty pair of babies playing with [their] live doll’ to an ‘ordinary man’ who is very much ‘accustomed to her face’?

Visions of visions

Watching theatre, I love to see beautifully constructed, impactful stage pictures oozing with stories and brimming with life. I knew that this was what I wanted to create and that the iconically stylish My Fair Lady would be a dream platform for such a goal. The importance of status in the Edwardian era was a gift in terms of showcasing the use of stage positioning to deliver a message and I was itching to draw out the obvious contrasts and underlying similarities between the Cockney gatherings and the elegant arrival at Ascot and the Embassy Ball.

At the opening of the show, the classes are brought together as the rich and wealthy depart the Royal Opera House, while the working class prep1043064are fruit, vegetables and flowers ready for the morning hustle and bustle of the Covent Garden market place. For me, this epitomised the premise on which I wanted to base the show – two worlds colliding – and  an image from a Renior painting stuck in my mind. So, it was at this point that any directing proper began and I sat down with my sketchpad and cast list and listened to the overture on repeat while I created my own ‘stickman Renior’ that would later become a still, revealed behind the theatre gauze, allowing the audience time to cast their eyes over the pregnant image ready to burst into action.

My sketchpad is my production Bible, brainstorm sink and reference point for every musical number and scene. One of the first actions I plotted was the surge of ‘posh folk’ moving forwards from their waiting place under the arches. Their black umbrellas and dark attire make render them sombre, somewhat intimidating and untouchable to the working class crowd that we grow attached to in the first scene.

It was important to me that every individual had a character and story and there was never a moment when any one person wasn’t doing something. One audience member noted that ‘whenever any member of the Ensemble moved anywhere they had their own journey, their own purpose’. Of course, they did. This was imperative to me. As selfish as I know I can be in life, the world doesn’t actually revolve around me so I was determined that it wouldn’t revolve around Eliza or any other character for that matter. Everyone had to have their own story, even if it wasn’t the one we were bringing into focus. I knew from the outset that Eliza’s first appearance, and Higgins’, should be subtle and unobtrusive. They, like everyone else on the stage, were one of the crowd. Thus, blocking ideas were recorded in my sketchpad with colour-coding, little arrows and meticulous notes against the music to remind me who would move where in the jostling crowd sequence right up until the overture intervenes with its own conclusive response to the ‘two worlds colliding’ when young toff, Freddy, knocks over flower girl, Eliza, prompting the series of events that will alter the course of her life forever.

Impact and outcome

Before watching the performance one night, an audience member asked me what I set out to achieve when I’m directing. ‘Do you like to be different? Do you like to create things that will make people say “that’s clever”?’ My answer is, as ever, multi-faceted. I like sincerity. I like to find depth in the characters so that the actors believe in them, truly discover them and build relationships with others based on what they understand about their own characters. I also like visual storytelling. I am obsessed with stage pictures and the idea that at any moment you could press pause and find stories in every pose, every gesture, every look. And I love symbolism. I love to know that the over-arching theme of two-world’s colliding is present and recurring throughout the play: it starts when Freddy crashes into Eliza; we see it again in Mrs Higgins’ eyes when Pickering reveals that Henry has plucked a flower girl off the curb; and it’s there every time Higgins tries to ‘ram’ his knowledge down Eliza’s ‘ungrateful throat’. I love the parallels that this theme reveals and how this can be echoed in the staging and choreography: Higgins stands lost outside his house in Wimpole Street, hands in his pockets, dreaming of Eliza, exactly where Freddy, who he has mocked, once did; the rich and noble spend their time and money at the Ascot races, where the ladies are paraded around by their partners, showing off their hats, whereas the working class while away the hours in the local pub, where the men show off the ladies and the ladies show off their bloomers in a right ol’ cockney knees up. In the Rain in Spain, a moment of dancing with Higgins is electrifying for Eliza, who has become so far removed from the whirling polkas and can-can of her cockney days. She is believed to be a Princess at the Embassy Ball and no longer fits in with the cockney rabble at her father’s impromptu stag do. 

‘Where is the line?’ asked the audience man. ‘Do you expect the audience to pick all of this out themselves? And if not, at what point is the symbolism just self-indulgent?’ I don’t know the answer. I guess it is self indulgent from the start and no, I don’t expect the audience to sit and analyse and notice. It’s nice when they do but it’s more about the production being a sum of its parts. Drawing out the parallels is an exercise in text analysis, it deepens our understanding, engages the  actors (sometimes) and helps to give greater purpose to the story we are telling. Fundamentally, it highlights the relationships, not just between individuals but between classes, social circles and so on. It highlights the truth, the relevance these happenings have to our own lives and the people we meet. What I’ve loved about our cast in My Fair Lady is their hunger to hear, learn, discover, draw on and invest in these ideas in the creation of a show that another audience member described as ‘empathy demanding… We feel so connected to the characters’.  And that’s what mattered.

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Photograph courtesy of @trevtography