Charlotte Jones is an unpredictable dramatist. In her most famous play, the recently revived Humble Boy, she gave us a Cotswolds Hamlet. Now, she turns to the tensions within a Quaker community on the Sussex coast in 1805, when there was the threat of a Napoleonic invasion. The result is a subtle, probing play that poses serious questions about faith, without denying its power.
Two essential elements of Quakerism are non-violence and stillness: the silence of a meeting is broken when someone chooses to speak. These, and other values, are tested by the play’s protagonist, Rachel. Accompanied by her deaf mother, she has married into the faith, given birth to three children by Adam, her stonemason husband, and seen them all die. Above all, she chafes against Quakerism’s quietism and withdrawal from political action. When she meets a young renegade soldier and persuades Adam to employ him as an apprentice, she provokes an inevitable crisis, both in her family and the movement itself.
This allows Jones to raise several issues. One, obviously, concerns the role of pacifism when the nation is at war: Jones feels for the persecuted Quakers yet, as the apprentice observes, the wars keep a stonemason like Adam busy making gravestones.
But this is a play about language and silence. Rachel is voluble, articulate and challenges the Quaker meetings by saying violence must not be met with silence “but with words and action”. At the same time it is her mother, Alice, communicating through sign language, who shows greater understanding and sees the disruptive nature of the newcomer.
There are some improbabilities in the play’s later stages: would a female Quaker be driven to murderous rage by sexual jealousy? While the language for the most part has the right propriety – with a potential bride being examined for “clearness” – it seems odd to hear the semi-literate Adam suggesting: “Perhaps we do grow introspective”. But the play’s dynamism derives from Rachel’s hunger for agency, and Lydia Leonard perfectly captures the character’s restlessness. Leonard makes you believe she is a 19th-century Quaker.
Natalie Abrahami’s direction and Vicki Mortimer’s design give the play a strong physical life and there are good performances all round. Gerald Kyd as the unbreakable Adam, Laurie Davidson as the dangerous interloper, Olivia Darnley as a paradoxical Quaker chatterbox all impress, and it is moving to see Jean St Clair, as Rachel’s long-silenced mother, given virtually the last word. The play is not without faults but what struck me, at a time when religion is a taboo subject on the British stage, was Jones’s ability to explore the beauties and limitations of a singular spiritual practice.
- At the Minerva, Chichester, until 11 August.