Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 17: Bryony Lavery’s Frozen (1998)
‘Grief is hard enough anyway. But when you don’t know the truth, everything freezes and it’s hard to move on.’
Page Eight, David Hare
The subject matter of Lavery’s play is difficult and harrowing. Mainly a three hander, it focuses on the story of Nancy, who has lost her youngest daughter Rhona; Ralph, who murdered her; and Agnetha, Ralph’s psychologist. Frozen spans over twenty years taking us from prior to the kidnapping in a scene which shows Nancy wanting to escape family arguments, to her struggle with grief after Rhona’s body and killer are found. It’s a story which is easy to sum up in a few lines. But the form Lavery has chosen for the play is, as the subject matter, difficult, ensuring that it never it veers into soap.
The play is made up of short scenes, all monologues or duologues. Characters both talk to the audience, confiding in them, and interact within the scene. To some extent, it reminded me of Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott (2015). Offstage characters, particularly Nancy’s oldest daughter Ingrid, are evoked through characters’ monologues: how they look, how they speak, their attitude. Moreover, like Owen’s brilliant play, words are chosen carefully; brevity is the key. In both plays, there is an arrow-like precision, where few words and how they are presented on the page – like poetry verse – can conjure the characters’ worlds and thoughts. And the characters are so richly drawn. There’s a moment where Ralph is talking about his childhood in such a romantic and idealized way that you feel he’s lying:
‘Big kitchen … we had a big kitchen obviously …
with filled cupboards … and shining work surfaces … and that’s where all
the kettles and pans … copper, all copper, all gleaming
in the light’
Whereas in Stockholm Lavery’s use of language provides an insightful study into a modern day relationship (albeit with a twist), with all a couple’s in-jokes and individualisms, in Frozen, the focused and poetic use of language helps to articulate what characters might not have been able to articulate in language which isn’t as stylised.
The monologues also allow for all three characters to be central characters, instead of being preachy or from one perspective. There’s anger and upset, but there is also compassion and moments of dark humour too. It also opens questions, particularly regarding, as Agnetha points out, of whether serial killers are evil or ill. Is they are ill, does that and should that make us think differently about how we distinguish between the thinkable and unthinkable, and so on.
The ‘frozen’ imagery is used adeptly throughout. As the play goes on, things are heard falling in the distance, chunks of ice breaking, characters thaw, Ingrid has found a new lease for her grief, and there are hints that Nancy is too. The play ends with ‘[t]he sun [breaking] through’, the ice beginning to break.