After a string of early hits, Charlotte Jones abandoned stage writing for TV, radio and film. Now returning to theatre with The Meeting, she tells Holly Williams how women writers are still marginalised in the industry
A pacifist, Quaker community during the Napoleonic wars may not be the obvious setting for a thriller or passionate love story. But Charlotte Jones is a playwright used to pulling off unusual juxtapositions and her first play in seven years, The Meeting, brings together all those elements.
Jones attended a Quaker meeting in Lewes for five years, attracted by the combination of the religious society’s communal silent worship and their central tenets: the four ‘testimonies’ to peace, equality, truth and simplicity.
“I didn’t go because I wanted to write a play; I went just because I fancied a little bit of silence,” she explains. “You sit in a circle and are silent for an hour, but if you are moved by the spirit you can stand and speak. And it just struck me that there was something inherently theatrical about it: we were all together and we didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
It also occurred to her that a close-knit community specifically based on non-violence could be a fruitful setting for a drama of interpersonal conflict.
“The play is about a community trying to live peacefully in a time of war and then facing their own challenges when violence erupts,” she says.
“What I really wanted to do was [explore] how even when you think you are living very peacefully, violence can grow out of that,” Jones, who now lives in Brighton, continues. “The challenge in any community is other people; we all rub up against each other in ways that deform us.”
The Meeting tells the story of Rachel and her deaf mother Alice. Rachel has married a Quaker stonemason called Adam, but they are unable to have children. Adam needs an apprentice and when Rachel meets a young soldier, Nathaniel, she persuades him to take the job. But Rachel and Nathaniel quickly discover they have a powerful connection.
Placing a deaf character at the centre of the action opened up further avenues for exploring silence and language, listening and who gets to speak. “What is it like for a deaf person who is in silence all the time? Is Quaker worship completely meaningless?” asks Jones.
Having a Deaf actress, Jean St Clair, in the rehearsal room has altered the production. In the era The Meeting is set in, there wasn’t a standardised British Sign Language; Alice and Rachel would have developed their own. But in the show, they primarily use BSL.
St Clair has taught Jones how different BSL is from English as a language. “It’s pictorial, so there are many different ways to say the same thing. It’s three-dimensional, not two-dimensional,” the writer says.
“At one point [Alice] says: ‘I am deaf strong’, and that’s something I wrote in response to meeting Jean and what a passionate advocate she is for her deafness,” says Jones. “She does not see it as a disability. She is an amazing advocate for British Sign Language, at a time when a lot of children are having cochlear implants and there’s a fear that sign language is dying out.”
While The Meeting is Jones’ first play in years, her 2001 hit Humble Boy was recently revived at the Orange Tree Theatre. Her fourth stage work, it opened at the National and transferred to the West End and New York.
“It was very funny to see it again. I was such a different person when I wrote it – I was so scared,” Jones says. “I’m a terrible audience-watcher, and I just used to look at people I thought were terribly bored or asleep, in a self-flagellating way. This time, I saw that the play touches people, and I allowed myself to be really nourished by that. I think that’s just being 50 rather than 30.”
The long break comes down to Jones’ work in TV, such as ITV drama The Halcyon and Without You, radio and most recently film, including adapting a film about the life of Rose Kennedy, JFK’s mother – as well as raising a family. “I found theatre very exposing when I was young,” she adds. “I did step away from it.”
But while Jones relished the “invisibility” of TV – not to mention the more child-friendly hours – the endless drafting-by-committee could be frustrating. She had The Meeting quietly on the go for several years, as “a refuge from awful script meetings”. She recognises a “freedom” in theatre: “It can come from a more truthful place.”
But there were other reasons for her absence from theatre. “Theatre is really good at promoting the young voice and the elder statesman. But it’s really difficult to sustain a career – and doubly difficult if you are a woman. There is a problem with the middle-aged female voice being heard.”
There’s an obvious, if somewhat limiting, role for the young female playwright she suggests, recalling photocalls with Vogue (“very uncomfortable”). It’s still the case today, she says: “The young girls get out in frocks and have photoshoots. I don’t see that happening to the boys.”
Men can be established quickly and are allowed to fail – whereas we’re only as good as our last play
Yet there appears to be a gender gap that opens up after a writer’s first few plays – men become established voices, while the women can be forgotten once they are no longer ‘hot young things’.
“Men can become established much more quickly, and they’re allowed to fail – whereas we’re only as good as our last play,” she says. “And that’s painful. It’s very painful. I think sometimes the female voice is different, but it’s heard from a male paradigm.”
With age comes greater self-acceptance, however. Jones is enjoying having a new play in rehearsal. As for press night, she says: “I shall be scared, but I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone – all I know is that it comes from my truth, and that’s enough.”
Born: 1968, Worcester
Training: Balliol College, Oxford
• Airswimming, Battersea Arts Centre, London (1998)
• In Flame, Bush Theatre; New Ambassadors Theatre, London (1999)
• Martha Josie and the Chinese Elvis, Bolton Octagon (1999)
• Humble Boy, National Theatre; Gielgud Theatre, London; Manhattan Theatre Club, New York (2001-03)
• The Woman in White, Palace Theatre, London (2004)
• The Lightning Play, Almeida Theatre, London (2006)
• Pearson and Manchester Evening News best new play awards for Martha Josie and the Chinese Elvis (1999)
• Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (2000)
• Critics’ Circle and WhatsOnStage best new play awards for Humble Boy (2001)
Agent: St John Donald, United Agents
The Meeting runs at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester from July 13 to August 11