Review of The Meeting in Chichester's Minerva Theatre
As the audience find their places, so do the actors. At the centre of the Auditorium there is a ring of chairs. Eleven people sit in the circle. They wear bonnets, tricorm hats, rustic garments, all in subdued browns and greys (“plain dress”). They sit in silence and gradually the audience joins them. For the cast it is 1805 and the play opens with fears amongst the Quakers about the coming celebrations for a Naval Victory, presumably Trafalgar. But “there will be no rejoicing in our hearts over the destruction of our fellow men”.
As far as I was aware there were five members or attenders of the contemporary Chichester Quakers at this performance of a play about a meeting on the South Coast at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Later in the week, when Charlotte Jones the playwright and Natalie Abrahamie the Director were interviewed by an ever enthusiastic Kate Moss, I counted eleven or so. We could have held our own meeting.
After the initial silence this play develops into a great, moving drama. Charlotte used the word “epic” to describe her own play and it certainly deals with epic themes such as truth, betrayal and forgiveness. I was particularly impressed with the introduction of a Deaf, signing, character and the contrast presented between her enforced silence and that of the Meeting. Someone from the modern meeting described the performance I witnessed as “superb”.
The programme describes the modern Quaker testimonies, the articles of our faith if you like. These are Peace, Equality, Simplicty, Truth and Integrity and a commitment to the Sustainabilty of the planet. One of our most loved documents, the Advices and queries, begins with an injunction quoted in the play “take heed dear friends to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts”. These are difficult ideals for us, all too human Quakers, to live up to. And so they prove for the play’s fictional Quakers. At the play’s centre there is a story about a lie, and that lie’s consequences. Without wishing to give too much away a newcomer is introduced to the meeting and claims a Quaker background which he does not possess. But truth is of importance to us all in the present time, when people seem to listen to each other less and rubbish their point of view more ( so called “fake news”)
It was in such places, for me, that some of the play’s weaknesses lie. I simply do not believe that this could have happened in the way suggested. Even in 1805 it seems to me communications were good enough, particularly amongst Quakers, for it to quickly emerge that such a newcomer had no Quaker family. And did Quakers in 1805 really sit in a ring to worship? I think not.
But perhaps such comments (and I could make more) are quibbles. Whilst in 1805 no Quaker would have been seen dead in a place as ungodly as a theatre, this modern Friend had a thoroughly enjoyable and productive evening at the Meeting. And if by chance your interest in the Religious Society of Friends has been raised by seeing this production, well you’d be welcome to come to one of our meetings on a Sunday Morning, 10.30 that is, in Priory Road Chichester.