Review: Frozen, by fingersmiths

image

Originally developed at the National Theatre Studio, ‘Frozen’ sees a cast of Deaf and hearing actors bring fingersmiths’ visual and physical theatre style to the stage, in the first major production of the play in 10 years.

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 9 March 2014

[I write as a member of Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB, some of whom saw the play at Stratford Circus and took part in a group critique of Frozen after the performance.]

Right from the offset, you know that Frozen is going to be a hard-hitting psychological drama. As the lights go up you are confronted by a compact, split-level set, all harsh white angles everywhere that set you on edge.

You don’t feel in harmony with what you’re seeing; no flowers or homely living-room paraphernalia to make you feel like a cup of tea. Thus the scene is set for a contemporary piece of theatre that keeps your nerves fraying throughout.

Frozen explores issues arising from the abduction and murder of a 10-year-old girl, Rhona, and how the crime ‘freezes’ the three main characters – Ralph, the girl’s killer, Nancy, her mother, and Agnetha, a criminal psychologist – into states of fraught emotional paralysis from which they are unable to escape.

A vivid, gut-wrenching and complex drama, Frozen also highlights the challenges in determining whether a crime should be treated as a sin or a symptom of mental health issues (Ralph is himself a victim of paternal child abuse). A large chunk of the play is dedicated to monologues, enabling insight into the characters’ changing thought processes as they struggle to make peace with their individual pain.

Eventually the monologues draw the characters together in raw symbiosis via one-to-one meetings. The final thaw-out is provided when Nancy visits Ralph in prison years later, with three simple-yet-hard words – ‘I forgive you’ – unleashing an extraordinary change in the serial killer.

In the hands of Fingersmiths, Frozen went smoothly from a three-hander to a bilingual ensemble of six without losing its edge, due to a high-calibre cast that kept us gripped all the way through. Detailing exactly what each actor excelled at is impossible given the talent involved, but Mike Hugo and Neil Fox-Roberts (both of whom played Ralph) and Hazel Maycock, as the speaking Nancy to Jean St Clair’s BSL counterpart, were flawless.

In bilingual Deaf theatre, the idea of having characters in duplicate – one signing, one speaking – is not new. I liked the way the pairs interacted with each other symbolising an internal dialogue, but the decision to move away from mirroring each other as well didn’t always quite work.

By entering the stage independently of each other and on different floors at the beginning, the two tightly-suited Agnethas (Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri), highlighted the sense of each being alone in separate homes. This left me slightly confused as to whether they were playing the same character, or just happened to have synchronised thoughts and actions as different people.

The two Ralphs were more successful with the BSL-using aspect (Fox-Roberts) pointing nonchalantly at the tattoos of his speaking counterpart (Hugo) while the latter recalled their history.

I welcomed the approach as a refreshing and bold experiment in theatrical dynamics.

Advertisements

Review: So Beautiful, by Chris Fonseca

image

Chris Fonseca’s debut dance video was created with the lyrics to ‘So Beautiful’ by Musiq SoulChild in mind. Melissa Mostyn asks what makes this piece of romantic choreography unique?

Originally published in Disability Arts Online, 18 March 2014

So Beautiful is exactly as the title describes. An aesthetically pleasing, easy-on-the-eye choreographed piece, for the first two-and-a-half minutes you do not realise the dancer is deaf – that is, until he turns his head in close-up and pauses. Other than that, it’s just some guy who could be chilling out on a Sunday, texting a loved one in bed surrounded by a collection of vintage watches and washing his face before he gets into his moves.

And what moves they are. Minimal, yet precise and idiosyncratic, they could not belong to anyone but Chris Fonseca, who performs them. This is not a video targeted specifically at Deaf audiences. You need to be a member of the Deaf Community to know who Semhar Beyene, the female co-dancer who appears at Chris’ front door three minutes in, is.

Why is this important? Can Deaf people not dance? Of course they can – Beyene is one of a number of accomplished Deaf dancers who can adapt well to whatever pop-music routines they’re asked to deliver.

But this is where So Beautiful deviates from the Deaf Community norm. Within ghettoised communities, it is not unusual for members to emulate mainstream pop stars – Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake – in their performances, and in that respect, the Deaf Community is no different. Groups like Def Motion and X-Factor-alike sign-karaoke contests are devised for the exact purpose of entertaining their Deaf audiences, who enthusiastically lap up every second (and long may that continue).

Rare, however, is the opportunity to watch a well-crafted routine like Chris Fonseca’s, and feel that it came from him alone.

Of course, skilful film direction and editing plays a vital role in the presentation of So Beautiful, and the discovery that the work was done by none other than Bim Ajadi, a consummate Deaf film director, made me smile.

Although he is credited at the end, downplaying Ajadi’s involvement is a clever strategy that reinforces the sense that So Beautiful is a dance video that has moved out of the ghetto; the twist being, it gives Ajadi scope for more creative freedom too. This is not intended as a slight on his more Deaf-orientated work. Rather, he should be allowed to work outside the ghetto if he so chooses.

It’s been pointed out by Dao’s editor that as an art form, dance allows more room for manoeuvre in terms of presentation of identity – often making it hard to tell if the work is coming out of the experience of marginalization, unless it’s encoded within the artist’s practice.

I’d say that especially applies to the Deaf Community. Precious little deaf access to professional dance training, coupled with a proliferation of pop-music videos and DVDs since the 1980s, ensures that those within the Deaf Community seek out easier ways to learn to dance, but sometimes incline towards sheer mimicry due to the challenges of practising moving in tune. This often results in them emulating well-known routines with a degree of quiet, intense concentration that you don’t get with hearing dancers, who ironically tend to show more facial expression in the duration.

In contrast, the ease with which Chris Fonseca shifts and twists his body in So Beautiful is as if he’s slipped on his own dancing shoes without realising it. If he removed his CI processor before the film began, how would I know he was deaf?