If, like the majority of the population, your access to sign language is generally limited to early morning educational programming – and a viral Mandela memorial faux pas – you may find long-overdue relief in the fingersmiths’ theatre company’s expressive use of this mode of communication, which celebrates the true physical force of the language. In a move that is astonishingly rare in theatre, and in the performing arts generally, Bryony Lavery’s harrowing and artfully-crafted play employs British Sign Language in a way that enriches its narrative for both deaf and hearing audience members. And so, this is a production as much about addressing the fault-lines in spoken English as it is about translating the ideas that these spoken words represent.
In Frozen we meet Nancy, Ralph and Agnetha – three characters with interweaving narratives that hinge on a case of child abduction, abuse and murder. Two decades ago, ten-year-old-Rhona went missing. Now, after the child’s bones are discovered and her tormented mother has started to make attempts to piece her own life back together, Ralph – Rhona’s abductor – can’t comprehend why his actions are deemed illegal, and why his desires are classified as wrong. Fascinated by criminal minds, academic researcher Dr Agnetha Gottmundsdottir is also piecing a profile together, using diagrams of the brain and a neat, well-rehearsed and slickly-delivered presentation to examine the extent of Ralph’s troubles.
With so many grappling identities to assemble, Lavery furnishes the emotional complexity and contradiction of her characters by allocating two actors to each. Here, a cast of four deaf and two hearing performers take on the three charged parts under Jeni Draper’s elegantly cross-stitched direction. In vaguely matching outfits, the partners within each set lead vaguely matching lives – but in each respective pair, as one actor speaks and the other signs, differing methods of communication are employed to bring nuance and texture to the motivations and anxieties of the characters.
Lasting not much longer than two hours, Lavery’s play does not have the time to adequately map its broad timescale and emotional horror, and so a number of the emotional transitions seem quite shallow. The production paints brief and promising sketches of Ralph as a victim in his own right, loaded with his own pathologies and abuses. It’s a worthwhile and sensitive argument but, despite the production’s wealth of communication methods, Frozen fails to distribute its depth of character development evenly, and does not address such an uncomfortable clash of characteristics.
However, in the midst of the sprint through two decades of cruelty and conflict, Frozen lingers long enough to champion the power of retribution. Our doctor titles her thesis “Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?” and wrestles with the motivations behind crime, trying to define each misdemeanour as maliciousness or insanity, sign or symptom. In a way, the narrative development echoes the doctor’s question as, on the insistence of her first daughter, Nancy makes attempts to forgive Ralph. With a little more development, this could be a weighty parallel.
When the pace is leisurely, the play’s multifaceted portraits succeed in generating a sense of integral identity and provide a compelling challenge to the standard use of one actor per part. While Hazel Maycock’s Nancy delivers a reflectively-paced anecdote, her companion, played by Jean St. Clair, blazes through her sign language interpretation with vivid passion. Here, through a colliding retelling, the events experienced in the past appear as stains on the present and, as the actors team together and eventually embrace, the characters gain a true fullness.
Frozen is currently on tour around the UK, visiting various venues until 11 March. For more information and tickets, see the fingersmiths’ website.