“A Christmas experience which is not cosy or commercial” The Frozen Fields by Nick Warburton – REVIEW

By Jane Bower

‘This is the story of a journey. It’s very old. And happening now. The story starts before the journey….’

A play by Nick Warburton, a performance by St. Mark’s, music by Janet Wheeler – any one of the three gets my interest. All three together and I booked immediately.

I don’t like plays, books or television programmes, at Christmas or at any time, which provide everything whether I need it or not, until I feel like a torpid uncle on a sofa, turkey dinner on lap. I like to puzzle, to work; I like my mind to be active, not passive. I knew this production would get me exploring.

It’s clear that St. Mark’s in Newnham feels the same, as the play was a commission for the church, which has a long history of using drama to explore faith issues, so devotedly sustained by the highly gifted Rex Walford and now being continued by those who learned from him. Award-winning playwright Nick Warburton, who has long associations with St. Mark’s, says the The Frozen Fields offers a Christmas experience which is ‘not cosy or commercial’; the theme is ‘a journey moving towards hope.’

census-at-bethlehem-ELDER

The journey was not made solely in the story, but physically, by the audience, who were smoothly and expertly guided to five different locations in the church buildings, though interestingly they were never actually seated in the main sanctuary itself. The play’s title, and the concept, was inspired by the painting The Census of Bethlehem by Pieter Brueghel, which shows numerous busy people, all different, but all heading for the same destination. The scene is not of the real Bethlehem but of the snowy Dutch landscape with which Brueghel was familiar.

So it was in the play. Five characters are gradually introduced, from varied backgrounds, some clearer than others, and the puzzle begins. Small clues are fed in, small links established, the characters begin to relate to one another. Two strangers, a young girl who plans and is told that other plans may get in the way of hers, a traveller, a young man who gardens. The girl is told ‘Helplessness will become your gift.’ The traveller holds and names his few remaining possessions in a broken accent; we learn that he is travelling to be counted, registered. The young girl becomes pregnant; she and the young man have angry words. The two strangers interact with them all, questioning, advising, narrating.

There are few props – a box, a shawl – important, but just enough. Strong visual images punctuate the script like waterpaint illustrations: ‘ walls the colour of yellow dust’, ‘a blue slate sky’, ‘the thin bones and ribs of trees’, ‘pencils in a green cup, like flowers’. The music varied from peasant-style jigs reminiscent of the Breughel to restless sound effects questioning and echoing from the dark.

An able cast, a warmly welcoming atmosphere and a well-organised team made The Frozen Fields the experience I had expected. I left warmed by more than the mulled wine, and drove home for Christmas still reflecting, exploring, changed.