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Rarely is theatre’s fourth wall broken so jaggedly as in Bryony Lavery’s play, Frozen

Ralph, a serial rapist and murderer of children, chattily soliloquises about the corpses and torture-porn videos stored in his lock-up garage. 

Speaking directly to theatregoers is a privilege relatively few characters are allowed. Some abuse it (Iago in Othello lies to us, Salieri in Amadeus defames the paying customers as “mediocrities”), while Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and Shakespeare’s Richard III deliver top comic stand-up.

Theatre’s invisible fourth wall has rarely, though, been more jaggedly broken than in Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play Frozen, a National Theatre and Broadway success now granted a starry 20th anniversary West End revival. Ralph (Jason Watkins), a serial rapist and murderer of children, chattily soliloquises about the corpses and torture-porn videos stored in his lock-up garage. His eyeline makes us stand-ins for the unseen young girl whom he is cajoling (“hello, hello, hello”) into the van he calls his “centre of operations”. Lavery also grants monologue rights – between dialogue scenes – to Nancy (Suranne Jones), the mother of one victim, and Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), a trans-Atlantic academic seeking fresh ground in the contest over whether psychotic behaviour results from choice or conditioning.

This is clearly a subject in which Lavery has not lost interest. By neat coincidence, the new Frozen opened the night before the world premiere, at the York Theatre Royal, of her powerful and theologically faithful adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Pinkie Brown, Greene’s Roman Catholic baddie, believes in the devil and hell more than in God and heaven, and chooses damnation as his eternal reward. Less challengingly to most sensibilities, Lavery’s Ralph has been overturned by circumstance: beaten and sexually abused when young, he is shown, through Agnetha’s neurological testing, to be stunted in those parts of the cerebral cortex that control emotion and empathy.

The theory that early neglect can program depravity into a brain was radical when Frozen was written. (Lavery faced accusations of plagiarism – later amicably resolved – over her channelling of the research of one academic.) Such views have now spread to the extent that Andrea Leadsom, the proudly maternalist MP, advocated, at a Tory leadership hustings, a programme of post-natal cranial massage to improve social outcomes in deprived areas.

The accents used may initially surprise the audience. Jones employs her native Lancastrian, rather than the crisp posh of her GP in BBC One’s Doctor Foster. To the possible regret of the Midlands tourist board, Watkins chooses an insinuating Brummie grumble for the serial child-killer. And Agnetha, Scandinavian-American in the text, is, in Nina Sosanya’s performance, very stridently New York.

The performers draw out every subtlety in the writing. Lavery does not definitively attribute the antagonist’s monstrosity to either damaged head or evil heart, and the portrayals maximise this ambiguity. Watkins’s Ralph, so physically corkscrewed that he could be auditioning for the crookback king, seems clearly to be making moral choices: adopting a children’s TV-like persona to lure schoolgirls, visibly and chillingly losing interest when the subject of an anecdote is revealed to be an adult woman. Watkins also leaves open the possibility that some of Ralph’s accounts of his childhood are a self-exculpating fantasy.

Sosanya’s pious, narcissistic Agnetha richly emphasises the text’s hint that the neatness of her theories about Ralph may overcompensate for a recent horror in her private life. Even Nancy, easy to play as the sainted mother of a martyr, is given spikes: snippy with her husband and other daughter, slyly using her celebrity status to get her way in the children’s charities she runs. The play is as concerned with Nancy’s psychological wiring – can the brutally bereaved achieve redemption and forgiveness? – and Jones shows searingly every stage of this nightmare journey.

The problem of a chamber play in a big Georgian theatre is elegantly solved in Jonathan Munby’s production and Paul Wills’s set design by the sliding in or out of single items – the victim’s girlishly blush-pink bed, Ralph’s skimpily white prison bunk, a business-class airline seat – suggesting a wider environment.

The play’s title reflects its organising metaphorical idea that a brain might be stilled, like ice, by what is done to it in childhood. But a good play must be fluid, running afresh for new times or teams. Two decades on, Frozen shows itself to be, in every sense, capable of moving. 

Bryony Lavery
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1

“Frozen” runs until 5 May

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game