Still Small Voice, by Danusia Iwaszko
“Still Small voice” is a new play recently performed at Bury St Edmunds Meeting House. This is a review by Rob Lock.
It was a powerful experience, to see the world premiere (because this work will travel) of a play about Bury St Edmunds Meeting House, in the very Meeting House. The ‘still small voice’ is that of Margaret Kemp, the woman who, in the 1950s, insisted and persisted in keeping the Meeting House open in the face of what must have seemed at the time like quite reasonable arguments for its closure.
Danusia Iwaszko, who produced the play as well as writing it, first came across the story in 2007 when she helped Bury Meeting with fundraising for the refurbishment that so amply justified, and indeed continued, Margaret’s faith in its future. She says “the image of her sitting under her umbrella haunted me” – and in the production a considerable amount of staged pipe work goes into re-creating that legendary scene, of Margaret opening her brolly.
Now one has to wonder at a person who sits alone in a large room and opens an umbrella when the roof starts to leak rather than putting out a bowl and moving elsewhere – but wonder turns to marvel when, against all the odds, her doggedness pays off!
The question of whether such doggedness is obstinacy or inspired faith is well explored in this engaging play, which not only deftly presents core Quaker beliefs but also keys into Quaker concerns, and issues of the time. For example, a character, powerfully played by Ean Ravenscroft, is introduced who helps Margaret with practical tasks and who, we discover, found that in the recent Second Word War he could not kill his fellow man. This has cost him the friendship of his mates – and his mental equilibrium, whilst he accepts their verdict that his stance was the result of cowardice.
The play is based on careful research, undertaken by a team of Quaker and other volunteers, the fruits of which were on display in a fascinating exhibition which included previously unknown photos of Margaret Kemp and also of the Meeting Room in 1952.
This research has been carefully crafted into a satisfying play using, for the most part, a minimum of dramatic license. Events are condensed into a more urgent timescale under the pretext of the Meeting House being needed for an imminent wedding (but there was a wedding there later that year) and characters have been amalgamated, with Margaret’s friend Jone Kilner becoming Claire Walker, the bride, in the play.
The most startling dramatic innovation is the inclusion of the medieval Norfolk mystic, Margery Kempe, as a counterpoint to her near namesake. Margaret is sometimes troubled and sometimes comforted by her presence, which she senses – initially heard, and later seen – at key moments in the story. Margery speaks to Margaret and also wails: for many reasons, but mainly because “I have seen heaven, and it is beautiful… and we live here, so far, so far from it.”
Perhaps the bravest decision was to dramatise a lengthy scene of silent worship. No action, no conflict. However, this turns out to be the turning point of the play, as other characters come in and join Margaret. From then on, we know that things will end well.
A key reason for things turning out so well on the night, of course, was the quality of the acting: every member of the cast convinced. It seems invidious to mention some and not others, but Richard Stainer gave a strong performance as John Hughes, an Ipswich trustee who argued the case for selling the Meeting House. His unease at having to take such a step, and his affection for, and occasional irritation with, Margaret rang very true. Anthony Hall and Michael Sullivan both brought comic relief to the proceedings with their estate agent and reforming alcoholic, respectively.
Obviously, however, any production of the play is going to stand or fall by the portrayal of Margaret Kemp, as she is on stage almost throughout. This production not only stood but flourished, thanks to Tracy Elster’s performance in the key role. She acted with a Quakerly combination of concern, optimism at all but the worst moments, and quiet power – modestly, effectively, commanding her stage.
That stage was the Meeting Room set out almost as it is for Sunday worship, though transformed by the sparse scenery and a formidable array of lighting. The production was therefore in the round, and members of the audience will have got a good introduction to Quaker ways as well seeing as an entertaining and thought provoking play.
Finally, mention must be made of the music, performed from the balcony. Occasionally tunes of the time floated wistfully out (Michael Sullivan again, on saxophone) and the play opened and closed, and was punctuated at key moments, by Sarah Hardy singing extracts from ‘When a Knight Won His Spurs’ and ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’. Beautiful and mesmerising. It really was an evening to remember.
Quaker Magazine, The Friend