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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Review: The Great Gatsby, The Immersive Ensemble, London

‘There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away ready in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

It is a brave move when a theatre designer agrees to recreate an interactive set for an American classic which demands Hollywood glamour and a hefty budget to go with it. It is an even braver move when (creating for an immersive audience who can scrutinise every detail close up) the brief requires creating the ‘purposeless splendour’ of Jay Gatsby’s house when Gatsby himself is described as ‘a regular Belasco’.

David Belasco was a famous director and theatrical producer of the 1920’s. His notorious set designs introduced a new expectation in terms of naturalism with his exquisite attention to detail being the paramount feature of his work. His demands for accuracy and extravagance matched his personal flamboyance in a way that only the pocket of ‘a Jay Gatsby’ could afford.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella, The Great Gatsby, is iconic for its depiction of the splendour of the Jazz era. The story follows Nick Carraway’s observations of Gatsby whose demise came after ‘he had committed himself to the following of a grail’, flaunting his wealth, paying attention to his ability to ensure nothing is forgotten, and no expense is spared in the pursuit of Daisy Buchanan. Rich with description (the ‘glimmering’ of ‘the world’s fair’ against the ‘dust’ of the ‘valley of ashes’) and poignant in its presentation of the ‘savage frightening dreams’ of America against the ‘grotesque reality’ of those dreams, the source material is ripe for the picking; the lure of lavish sets and the intrigue of auspicious secrets begging to be unwrapped in dark corners.

The Immersive Ensemble in association with the Colab Factory makes a good effort to create this shallow world for us in a gutted carpet warehouse in Long Lane, SE1. And, although not as detailed and opulent as Gatsby might have demanded (or a Punchdrunk budget might have allowed), the artifice of the set design boasted plenty to tempt the explorer off the beaten track.

As we wait in the staging area – both the piano bar and an american drug store veneer for the party-proper, we observed the confused but magical space dripping with filament bulbs, hung manuscript paper and copper piping, not knowing quite what to expect from the immersive evening. Half the audience had followed the invitation request to dress for the era and it made all the difference to the atmosphere that they had. If you can catch the performance, do make the effort to invest in being a part of the evening’s events.

After a mysterious introductory speech from Nick Carraway (the narrator of the novella but not necessarily of the theatre experience), who has been lingering unnoticed in the crowd, we are ushered into a glorious party where the small but quick-tongued cast circulate the guests with chit-chat and ‘pleasant, cheerful snobbery’ before succumbing to the appealing cadence of the recorded ‘orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes’(Fitzgerald).  A simple but high energy dance routine forced us to clear the floor and observe from all around and above, if we could snatch prime position on the balconies, before being picked off to converse once again with the flirtatious cast. Unlike the flamboyant Belasco, Gatsby is quietly modest and charming, traits that Max Krupski owned in every ounce of his terrific performance as an observer on the periphery of his parties; on the periphery of Daisy’s current life. He charms us away from the dancing to introduce himself and find out our names before calling out to the crowd that he ‘will be down in a minute, [he’s] just having a drink with’ – and he flatteringly remembers our correct names. Who can resist clinking glasses with Gatsby as he tells you his night is made now that you have arrived?!

Like Nick’s narration of the book, the whole ordeal is very casually shared throughout the evening. There is no rush into the story. And so the shepherding begins and the crowd are siphoned off, some to witness secret trysts, some to share in solicitous gossip and some left behind to learn the charleston routine. Time is but a care for the outside world.  As we shift between the main party room and hidden corridors, bedrooms and dens, characters are presented and we fathom their duplicitous secrets before tripping along behind another protagonist to see what they might willingly reveal.

In the sub-rooms of the Gatsby mansion, hired furniture gave a good sense of grandeur in between the heavy black curtains and swathes of gold fabric. Short of performing in a Stately House, there was little option otherwise but there were some lovely details and many period features nonetheless;

my favourite find being the framed mechanical portrait of the tragic yellow car on the wall of Gatsby’s study that we found when exploring the side rooms at leisure after the show-proper had finished. It’s always such a treat to nose around the set at an immersive production.

There are more dance parties, more drinks, more arguments and more rendezvous. We are serenaded by the well tuned voices of various characters who take to the stage, demanding the accompaniment of the subservient (-but why is he at the parties?-) George Wilson, demonstrating a weak and rare nod to the importance of the class divide of this era and story.  Wherever we go, we thankfully don’t run the risk of missing much as the story itself doesn’t seem to be unravelling with any haste until we are all ushered back into the main room to witness a significant tea party that surmises the root of many of the tales we have been hearing. And what a relief that we don’t miss it! The sumptuous dance duet between Ivy Corbin (as Daisy) and, the exquisitely cast (have I said that?), Max Krupski (as Gatsby) is the epitome of the weightlessness that Fitzgerald endows on Daisy’s virgin-white dress; devoid of all the effort of this demanding production, the pair climb deftly up to the balcony and slip along the gallery in a nimble, lyrical and romantic chase. This beautiful sequence made the audience’s thrill of chasing characters seem cheap by comparison and, for a moment, we idolise the easiness of their love.

In Act 2 (the drinking, partying and merriment continues through the break), the equally evocative dramatic climax is reached and the use of lighting, sound and music is employed most effectively here to bring forth the trauma without the need for any of that meticulous Belasco naturalism. The company, skilfully, drive the scene forwards at a hurtling pace that can only mean the party is coming to an unstoppable end; our only respite – Samuel Hunt (Wilson)’s beautiful but harrowing lament – defying any release before we are forced to face closure, alongside the characters, longing for the opportunity to tie up all the loose ends from the precariously unravelled stories.

On stage, the characters (except Gatsby who has plenty of source material) and script lack some substance. Although very little happens in the original story, there are layers of patterns and symbolism, themes and subtleties that are woven into Fitzgerald’s writing which become lost in translation. The performance is forced to skip over the charade of the characters’ surface stories to focus almost entirely on the overzealous hints at the not-so-secret secrets behind them. It’s a shame because the cast are a very capable bunch who, at times, have nothing to play beyond the weakly scripted ‘I’m here’ (repeat, repeat, repeat) and the tongue in cheek looks of knowing as another character races through the space with their cohort of snoops. Being asked to constantly ‘reveal’ rather than ‘hide’ their privilege to secrets over such a prolonged time challenges their opportunity to play truthful characters. Having said this, we were privileged to see several understudies (again – yay!) in role and, in particular, Toby Gordon (Tom Buchanan)’s ability to sustain well-informed, one-sided conversations was remarkable. The group’s singing voices were excellent, particularly when in mournful unison at the dramatic conclusion. And what a relief it was to see Holly Beasley-Garrigan get to expose a moment of Jordan’s vulnerability in the final scene, proving that she has such depth as an actress and is not just limited to the being able to play the bawdy and condescending hypocrite that she sustained (so well) for the rest of the evening.

The audience’s involvement was a well played feature of the event, epitomising the spirit of the roaring twenties from the top. We were dressed up to the nines; taught to charleston; complimented at every look and turn; smuggled away into back corridors and dark rooms with all the clandestine secretivity of attending a prohibition speakeasy. The thrill of the chase had us flitting giddily like ‘prosperous‘ ‘moths‘ to the Jazz Age.

The evening was such a lot of fun and I would absolutely recommend it to hip Londoners or trendy tourists looking for a night out. If you don’t know the book, the actors will ensure you know all you need to know before the dramatic climax of the story is most effectively unleashed.  If you are a Gatsby enthusiast or literary scholar, leave your expectations at the door and accept the night for what it is: the chance to dress up and party with some very fine actors indeed, old sport.

The run has been extended to December 2018. Tickets available from The Immersive Ensemble but also look out for offers on the Today Tix App as we bagged a bargain.

Do let me know what you thought of the experience, or if you’ve seen or would recommend any other immersive theatre, in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

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!

Best Seat in the House

July is shaping up to be an exciting month for theatre-going, according to my calendar. I can’t wait to share a number of reviews with you for a host of different types of theatre experiences.

This weekend, I’m off to the RSC, Stratford, to catch a preview of Miss Littlewood; next week I will be sampling some new writing from a fledgling theatre company who are presenting Sardines at the Drayton Arms; this will be followed by an immersive production of The Great Gatsby at a ‘secret location’ in SE1; and then I will be jumping onto the Hamilton bandwagon to find out what all the hype is about.

I’m not particularly fussy when it comes to picking seats at the theatre. If there’s one left and it’s behind a pillar, I will own it just for the chance to attend a piece of theatre that I want to see. Having said that, cost does factor into the occasion. I do like to see fair prices for seating. Given the choice, if I am going to see a musical or ensemble piece, my preference would always be to sit on the first tier, variably referred to as the Dress, Royal or Grand Circle, depending on the theatre. As a trained dancer, I love to be able to look down and enjoy the shapes and patterns of the choreography. Use of space ranks highly in my own directing and choreographing so I like to enjoy it when I’m watching other shows too.

I have friends who like to sit in the stalls and, in particular, in the front row of the stalls where they feel part of the action. They love the close proximity to the actors, being able to see them sweat and to make eye contact with them and show them their responses. Indeed they’ve enjoyed the occasional tweet from a performer who has appreciated their camaraderie during a rousing Master of the House. These are friends who are willing to be targeted by comedians or picked to step up on stage and take part in the likes of One Man, Two Guvnors. In their recent trip to see War Horse, they felt like they could reach out to touch Joey and the story was being told just for them. A truly magical experience.

Another friend is a sound technician. He also loves the stalls but prefers to be further back, taking in the sight and appreciating the sound from where he knows it resonates best in particular theatres.

Do you have specific seats or areas of the theatre that you like to sit in? Would you still book if your seats were not available?

Some people turn to the knowledge hubs such as Seat Plan or Theatre Monkey for reviews before making their selection of the best seat available. I’d love to hear your own experiences and why you like to sit where you do. Perhaps you have a preference for certain types of theatre. Let’s get chatting in the comments below!