Frozen: Where Right and Wrong Melt Into One

Regarded by the Independent as one of the 40 best plays of all time, Bryony Lavery’s Frozen is a play in two acts and 30 scenes, not to be confused with the new musical of the same name; it is a dark drama far removed from the magical world of princesses. The play is being staged by Artistic Director James Haddrell at the Greenwich Theatre.

We're asking audiences to come on a big and quite a dark journey with us

The Guardian described it as “A big, brave, compassionate play about grief, revenge, forgiveness and bearing the unbearable." It’s a tragic tale, but an intriguing exploration of criminal motivation, psychological analysis, emotional paralysis and the bounds of forgiveness.

After a brief opening scene in New York City, the story is set in unspecified locations in present-day England, stressing that such events could take place anywhere. The plot involves three main characters and a fourth who is deceased: Agnetha (Indra Ové), an American psychologist; Nancy (Kerrie Taylor), a mother whose ten-year-old daughter Rhona is abused and killed; Ralph (James Bradshaw), a sexual serial killer who murdered Rhona.

Although fictional, the play is rooted in cases that Lavery studied. As a result, the compelling natures of her characters have attracted the attention of several academics in pathology and criminology and other dramatists. Katharina Dellbrügge, quoting Christina Wald, maintains in her paper that “All three of them can be regarded as traumatised characters At the outset they are ‘frozen', because, as Wald says, they are 'captured in and paralysed by their past experiences'”. She goes on to explain that “ Lavery allows each of them to take a journey towards a melting of their frozen states: “Agnetha learns to acknowledge the loss of her colleague, friend and lover; Ralph realises what he has done and encounters remorse for his crimes; Nancy progresses from a state of determined hope to painful bereavement and thoughts of revenge, but finally reaches a state of acceptance and forgiveness”.

Murat Öğütcü maintains that “Frozen is a both thematically and technically subversive play that deals with a topical theme that is almost a taboo in societies, that is, child abuse. Nevertheless, what makes Lavery’s play daring is her controversial suggestion that even such a horrible act could be forgiven in order to continue with life and not be ‘frozen’ in hatred… (it) stands out as an important play enabling the audience to contemplate on the highly controversial and unsolved problem of child abuse from multiple angles.” With that background, it’s now time to hear from those involved in the production. James, I’ll start with you, as the director:

James this sounds like an enormously challenging play for everyone involved, including the audience. Can you tell us what drew you to it and a little more about the story and the characters and also comment on the unusual structure of the play?

I’ve loved this play since I first came across it about 20 years ago. The interesting thing is that whilst I’ve wanted to tackle it for a long time, I’ve only become a parent relatively recently, so the potency of the story has increased exponentially. The play tells the story of Nancy, a mother whose 10-year-old daughter Rhona goes missing on the way to her grandma’s house. Although the audience discovers very soon that she has been abducted and murdered by Ralph, Nancy by contrast is left not knowing what happened for twenty years. All of this is wrapped up in a presentation to the audience by Agnetha, a US psychiatrist who studies serial killers, what makes them and why they do what they do.

The play is heavily researched by Lavery, with the sources for each of the three characters well documented. Nancy’s experience is drawn from testimony by the family of one of Fred and Rosemary’s West’s victims, Ralph’s character owes a huge amount to Scottish serial child murderer Robert Black, and Agnetha is based on Dorothy Lewis, an American psychiatrist who has interviewed, and testified in the cases of, countless death row inmates including Ted Bundy.

Those three people’s lives never intersected in real life, and as the play begins the same is true – whilst the narrative binds them they never meet in scenes, presented instead in gradually intertwining monologues. That creates a sense of isolation in each case, which is dramatically broken when they start to share scenes. This is something which our brilliant young designer, Alex Millidge, has drawn on in a uniquely partitioned, revolving Set.

You mention the set, but another interesting feature of this play is that Lavery directs the inclusion of specific sounds such as ‘splintering ice floes' and at another point in the distance ‘something falls from a great height ... fractures ’ and ‘somewhere, some liquid starts dripping slowly’ and again we hear the ‘sound of something breaking’, then the ‘sound of clapping’. How significant are these inclusions in the play?

This has been really interesting to explore. The sounds aren’t necessary in the telling of the story, but they are arguably crucial in the presentation of the play, they are part of a theatrical language created by the playwright. Whilst the three performances are utterly naturalistic, they are presented in a self-consciously theatrical manner, with monologues played out to the audience gradually supplanted by scenes, with timelines colliding in unexpected ways, with fairy tale motifs subtly embedded in the story. The soundscape adds to that theatricality, particularly in creating a frozen emotional landscape to underpin the story. It also interrogates the way that we tend to speak (and hide) in metaphors when faced with something incredibly difficult to process – ‘it was earth-shattering’, ‘the whole world went quiet’, ‘it was like being hit by lightning’, ‘the earth shifted on its axis…’. Lavery makes us revisit statements like these and re-evaluate the clichés that they have become to rediscover the emotional truth in them.

So how would you describe the experience of immersing yourself in this play?

This has been a tough one. I think all of us have had moments where we’ve struggled to leave the story in the rehearsal room. I’ve certainly needed to take a breath at home with my children at various points. However, that is a testament to how real the characters’ journeys all are. The other thing that has surprised me, even knowing the play already, is how much it has challenged what I guess is an almost instinctive sense of morality – a belief that underneath everything certain acts are simply right or wrong and that there are people who are simply unforgivable. The play takes the nature/nurture debate to the very extreme, but it's always anchored in scientific research, with some powerful results.

James H, what would you like audiences to take away from having seen this play?

I think it is inevitable that audiences will be surprised, at various and varying moments, by how they feel about the characters and their actions, and not just in the case of the murderer, but I also hope that audiences take away a sense of the astonishing power that we all have as people. We are capable of extraordinary things and of incredible emotional strength. We hear very often that we only use a certain percentage of our brains, but I think we also routinely only use a fraction of our hearts. The human capacity for love and forgiveness is so much greater than most of us ever acknowledge – life just gets in the way – but it shouldn’t take something life-shattering like the loss of a child to make us stop and feel.

Thank you. Kerrie, as Dellbrügge points out, Nancy goes on a long emotional journey. Can you expand on that and explain what you’ve tried to bring out in this character?

One of the first things I said to James when we talked about it was that I would never have been on an emotional journey this long with one character, because Nancy passes through so many years but also so many emotional states in dealing with what she has to deal with.

I think with death and grief we all, myself included, tend to think of it in terms of sadness, but actually that's a rather too easy summary of what a grief journey is. There is sadness, of course, enormous sadness, but there's also sacrifice from the person who's grieving in choosing to go on living without the person they're living without, and in choosing to continue because of the people around them. They go on this journey, but grief ripples throughout their lives in so many ways, and not all of them are pretty or easy to understand, not all of them are expected. I think a lot of people who grieve will recognise that grief can take you by surprise.

What Nancy does in choosing to survive this horrific thing, and how she goes about it, and the many states she passes through have been an absolute privilege to try and get to grips with. I think she is the most incredible woman and what she does and how she does it has been so beautifully written – so I started with the writing and the research that Bryony undertook in writing the character, particularly the article Salvaging the Sacred by Marian Partington, sister of Lucy Partington whose disappearance and subsequent death proved to have been at the hands of Fred and Rosemary West.

Kerrie, the last time we spoke, you were rehearsing for James’ production of Vincent River, also at the Greenwich Theatre, and you said, “’s sometimes quite hard when people see you as a soap actor to get seen for theatre, so it was quite a tough battle to convince everyone that actually I’m a trained stage actress”. Your performance on that occasion left no one in doubt about that and now you seem to have gone further down the road with this even heavier part. How does it feel?

Thank you for the lovely things you've said in the asking of that question. Nancy is, in many ways, a heavier part, but there's a lightness to Nancy as a human being. We get to see her for the first time before it all happens. And there's a loveliness and a gentleness and a humour to her that I think makes it particularly interesting to take her on this journey. So whereas we saw my character in Vincent River already post the horror, we see Nancy before the awful events that transpire in the play and then we live with her through 20 years of learning to live with the hole, with the size and the shape of the hole left be Rhona’s disappearance. Therefore, I think she's a very different individual.

One thing that has been fascinating about her is her real humanity, at every turn, and I say that both in admiration and honesty, because sometimes her humanity takes her in the wrong direction. She's very far from always right, but she's always trying and I've come to really love her.

I'm going to put the same couple of last questions to each of you, so Kerrie, how would you describe the experience of immersing yourself in this play?

I have found myself more drawn into this process and this play than any other play before it. I'm normally pretty good at leaving things at the front door and going back to my family and my life when I'm not at work and it's just not been possible to do that this time because she's so extraordinary and the writing is so extraordinary that it just sort of ricochets around your mind all the time - it's very reminiscent of the way that grief ripples through your whole life.

It's been an absolute privilege to work with Indra and James Bradshaw and we've almost felt with James and with Cora, the stage manager, that we've all kind of been in a little strange world just on our own - and within that world I've been in another smaller world by myself, because there's so much monologue in the play. It has made me realise thatone of the things that must be so very difficult for Nancy is her isolation, because I think we all know that if we hear of such terrible things as a child dying we tend to say “I don't know how that person's alive” and we mean well to say it admiringly but really that's the only thing we can think, it's the only place we can put it in our heads and from there we turn away because we don't have to know how that person lives and we don't want to go there. Nancy isn't given a choice so she is very alone in that.

And what would you like audiences to take away from having seen this play?

I think we're asking audiences to come on a big and quite a dark journey with us. And I think it's really important that the audience feels why it was important to come there with us. What changes for them? I think it comes back to, without being trite, Francis of Assisi saying that all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of one candle. I hope the audience walk out thinking that human beings are effectively, essentially good. Stuff goes wrong, very, very wrong, but humanity is a good thing, and whilst it's our humanity that leads to extraordinary failings, it also gives rise to extraordinary togetherness.

James Bradshaw, you’re known for playing decent characters, usually full of wit and humour, as with Max DeBryn, the Home Office Pathologist in Endeavour. Now you’re on the other side playing a psychopathic child murderer! How have you found the transition and does Lavery deploy humour of any sort in these difficult circumstances?

I loved playing Max DeBryn. It was a beautifully written part, and working with Shaun and the Endeavour team was a truly wonderful experience that I will always cherish. That said I think it’s good to always keep challenging yourself as an actor, and a role like Ralph was certainly going to do that. He has such a twisted sense of reality and his morality is totally warped. When I first read the play, I thought it was both brutal and shocking, but very powerful and so well-written.

There are elements of dry humour from some of the characters, particularly from the brilliant psychiatrist, The story is so intensely moving, and the play is unsparing in telling the story of our worst nightmares, whilst always having a sense of humanity.

And how would you describe the experience of immersing yourself in this play?

Kerrie and Indra are great to work with, they are both such talented and generous actors, and alongside our brilliant director James, it has been a really collaborative process. It has felt very respectful at all times, which I think is so important.

Indra, as a psychologist Agnetha is attracted to this situation but how does her work end up impacting her own life?

Agnetha is incredibly passionate and focused about her work. She's a trailblazer. She's the first one to affect the death penalty, to affect judgment, and she's utterly dedicated to this work, as you have to be, because she's proposing something that nobody else wants to really think about and address So she throws herself into the study of serial killers and paedophiles, into the world of people who do these heinous things, and she works passionately to understand their brains and their psychology.

But I think that unravelling the brain to the extent that she does, it means that you observe humanity from a different perspective. You see beyond just the outside, you understand how the brain works, how it's triggered, how it responds, so I think it makes you reflect upon society and humanity very differently. You can't accuse people in the same way. I imagine it makes her much more forgiving, much more empathetic to all humanity, to recognise people's flaws and rigidity. That will position someone slightly outside of society, but then being a trailblazer does the same - and in Guilty by Reason of Insanity, the book by Dorothy Lewis (the US psychiatrist on which Agnetha is based), she talks about her loneliness.

The other thing that impacts Agnetha is the loss of her partner, which Bryony Lavery has woven into this script so brilliantly. As the play opens, her colleague of 20 years has just been killed in a car accident, so she's experiencing loss that has come out of a very brutal, violent event, and in that state she meets the woman who has lost her child to a serial killer, someone who falls outside of the usual scope of her studies. She deals with serial killers, not with the people who have lost their children to them. And in this play, she's confronted with that, which I think spins everything for her and makes her have to question society once again, and what loss is, what loss does to us, and how we recover from that.

Indra, your late father, the celebrated pioneering filmmaker Sir Horace Ove, once said, “I’m interested in people that are trapped. The trap that we are all in and how we try to get out of it.” I imagine Frozen, with its three trapped characters, would have resonated with him and he would have relished seeing your portrayal of Agnetha.

My dad was always interested in the underdog, in those outside of society, those whom society penalises, prejudices against and how those people survive. My dad was also very interested in presenting these people as three-dimensional humans and looking into what makes them tick, what turns their brain. He documented and reported the lives of Caribbeans and Africans arriving, having been invited into

Britain in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and how they dealt with the trauma of violent racism. But Horace wasn't only interested in the Caribbeans or in black people – he was interested in people and he was interested in people outside of society. Racial, prejudice, sexual prejudice, he always celebrated the underdog and always made us very curious of the world and of all peoples, so he would have been hugely empathetic to all three characters in the play.

The mother who's lost the child, the brutality of that - Horace was passionate about family, the care of family, the love of family, the extended family, right through to our ancestors, he placed huge importance on that and on nurturing family so he would have been hugely empathetic with the character of Nancy, her loss, her survival techniques, how you move forward and the nature of her focus on her other child. Ralph, he would have been utterly fascinated by – what produces these monsters, why would Ralph behave in the way he behaved, that's what would have interested my dad in the same way that it interests Bryony, that the same way it interests Dorothy - what is it that makes these people tick, what have they suffered and therefore how do we judge them?

He would have probably shared Agnetha’s point of view, and then become fascinated by her with such an amazing brain and an ability to analyse these people. As a fellow trailblazer, as a woman making people think differently, look differently, it's what Horace did. He made people look and think differently as she does. And yes, he would have relished seeing me play Agnetha. He relished seeing me perform my many different roles. He was hugely encouraging of my acting despite the odds and how hard it was when I first started, because there were very few people who looked like me. He encouraged me never to give up, to continue despite the fight. So to see me play Agnetha, a trailblazer like him, fighting her fight, I think would have really excited him.

Indra, how would you describe the experience of immersing yourself in this play?

Immersing myself in this play has been an extraordinary journey. It's forced me to look at literature and film that I would never have otherwise picked up. The serial killer has never been something that fascinated me. I mean, we're all fascinated, but it's not somewhere I delved into. They're a person that I hope never to come across or meet, clearly. But this has been an incredible thing to come to understand, and immersing oneself in Dorothy's brain is quite a treat and quite extraordinary and has opened me up to look at people in new ways.

And now you have the last word in saying what would you like audiences to take away from having seen this play.

Quite simply, to love, care for and protect all children.

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