The new Fingersmiths production, ‘Frozen’ is a brave and dark choice. We are invited to follow the lives of three distinct characters; Nancy, a traumatised mother whose daughter, Rhona, has been abducted and murdered by Ralph, and Agnetha, a criminal psychologist trying to work out if his crimes are due to evil or illness.
Fingersmiths exist to ‘push the boundaries’ of spoken and signed performance, and in this case the director, Jeni Draper, has chosen to do so by having each character portrayed by not one, but two actors.
For each character, one actor uses BSL and the other speaks, but there is much more interplay than you would expect. This is not a simple case of two plays happening next to each other, one spoken and one signed.
Despite their different communication styles, the deaf and hearing actors mingle and interact with such wonderful ease and poignancy, one wonders why it isn’t more like this in real life…
Written by Bryony Lavery, ‘Frozen’ is not a play in which things happen. There are no fight scenes, nobody gallops across the stage; there are no fascinating lighting tricks at play, or any other noisy theatre tricks to maintain the audience’s interest. Instead of things happening, in ‘Frozen, the people happen.
Having said that, there are fight scenes; the characters are all constantly in flux, waging war with their internal thoughts. There is some galloping across the stage, but it isn’t physical; it’s the tangible surge of emotion when Nancy realises Rhona is truly gone, or the sudden, unexpected flood of despair from Agnetha, who we could easily initially mistake as the one character who has it together.
There is no need for distracting lighting tricks; the calmness of Jo Paul’s brilliantly simple and effective staging instead allows light to shine on the human condition. This really gives the performance back to the actors, who take up the challenge with stunning confidence.
For me, the sheer emotion that poured from both Hazel Maycock and Jean St Clair as Nancy was breath-taking. Usually, during productions which contain both BSL and speech, I only look at the signing characters, but it was impossible not to watch Maycock, and the differences between the two portrayals of the same woman. I don’t even really know how I managed to watch them both, and not miss anything, but I did, presumably down to some clever directorial and staging decisions.
The same was true of Ralph, played by Neil Fox-Roberts and Mike Hugo. It seemed natural for me, as a deaf viewer, to gravitate towards Fox-Roberts’ snarly, menacing signing, but I couldn’t ignore the even creepier, aggressive version being shown by Hugo.
Again, interaction between the two actors helped the audience see into Ralph’s tangled inner confusion, despite his apparent controlled fury. With often immaculate timing and visible thought processes, this pair of actors, in particular, seemed utterly two halves of a deformed whole.
Deepa Shastri and Sophie Stone work together to portray the New York psychologist, Agnetha. Theirs seems a relationship of unity, rather than internal/external dialogue.
They match each other more consistently; Agnetha has her own wars with the world, but both actors are united in presenting her clinical, controlled face. Although we see opposing sides of both Ralph and Nancy as they battle with their inner thoughts, at least theirs are fights which can eventually come to a conclusion. Ultimately, and ironically, Agnetha is the one left out in the cold.
Although the play deals with intensely powerful issues, delivered unflinchingly, there are sparks of hope. I didn’t leave the theatre feeling dragged down by humanity, but uplifted by such a stark investigation of the human character; I was affected even by the stories of characters who never appeared on stage, such as Nancy’s partner and elder daughter.
And, besides all this proper reviewer-y stuff, I was also just watching it as Emily Howlett, and Emily Howlett LOVES to see stunning theatre made by, and with, deaf people. It’s about time everybody else did too. Go and see it. Tell your friends to see it. Drag people in off the street to see it. It’s properly good. We want more of this, please. Lots more.
By Emily Howlett
‘Frozen’ has just completed two weeks at Birmingham Rep, and will now tour the UK. Details can be found here -: http://www.fingersmiths.org.uk/frozen/
You can watch an introduction to Fingersmiths ‘Frozen’ here; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZedlROFmSDY
You can also follow their progress at https://www.facebook.com/fingersmiths.org.uk, including cast and crew vlogs and upcoming tour information.
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