Isolation. Grief. Retreat. Withdrawal. Cold thrusts us into the world of two parents dealing with a pain so unbearable, a very specific type of exquisite suffering. The grappling exhaustion and the almost possessive like grief takes a hold of Falda (Janet Etuk) and Ulf (Jacob Meadows) as their heartache is illustrated through 14 chapters. Cold is a play initially developed at Bristol Old Vic and Barbican Pit, and became a theatrical feature film produced by Open Sky and funded by Arts Council England. Open Sky is run by award-winning filmmakers Claire Coaché and Lilse Turner who shot the project as a film based on their own experience, and this lingers with you. I had to watch the screening in segments as parts of this film were so unbearably traumatic.
Cold sets the tone of the narrative from the beginning; Falda and Ulf are in a hospital cubicle preparing for a routine maternity appointment. The first shot is a collection of montage clips showing their anxieties over the pregnancy, no words are spoken but the fear is painted all over their faces: the fear of the unknown and of what may or may not be. The backdrop is cold, prescriptive, blue and cold. Warmth is added to this scene during a brief conversation between Falda and Ulf, where their love is beautiful and metaphysical, their bond is unbreakable but is about to be put through the ultimate test.
The initial scene plunges the narrative into the internal world of Falda and Ulf, and their anxieties lead them to find solace in a cabin in the woods. Reminiscent of Lars Von Triers AntiChrist, Coaché and Turner exploit the hostile elements of winter and limit the power of linguistics for maximum symbolic import, so that as the audience we are bound to the words not existing in their space. The characters are used as a device to replace the words not being said. Their reactions to the start of the harsh winter, the cold, is so perfectly displayed. I actually felt cold and during the end scene, physically felt my body shivering. The cold is so visceral and almost surreal, the freezing snow on the couples skin, huddles by their man-made fire, their clothing used as a shield against the cold. No words are uttered but Falda and Ulf convince the audience, using the power of their bodies and facial expressions, to move with the discomfort.
The play is broken up into chapters, with headings that foreshadow a specific struggle the couple will face. From “Alone”, to “Skin”, to “Loss”, we are transported on a journey through grief and time and a parent’s fight to hold on to life. It’s a concept that is entirely personal and I felt almost as if I was intruding on a story I didn’t deserve to experience. Throughout the play, the presence of animals and nature are motifs to depict the physical and hormonal changes of pregnancy. Beautiful birdsong is sprinkled throughout the play during moments of love and warmth, close up shots of owls and squirrels, Ulf even constructs a baby crib using animal skin. But the threat of something sinister is looming close by and lingers over the play like a bad smell. The audience can feel something is about to change, and not for the better.
The play describes itself as a “dark fairytale” and as we approach the horror, Coaché and Turner use the presence of the Hex Doctor (Claire Coaché) to create a conflicting parallel between subconscious fears and medical, standard prenatal care. Following a fever and no access to any hospitals, Falda and Ulf are visited by a Hex Doctor who offers them an ultimatum. Falda is faced with the decision many people who are pregnant, and at the mercy of medical intervention, experience. The Hex Doctor is in a position very similar to The Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Doctor holds the fate of this unsuspecting couple in the palm of their hand, “your baby was meant for this world”, they proclaim. This interaction dovetails between similar antinomies that the play successfully deals with and is preoccupied by: hope and despair, order and chaos, warmth and the cold.
This play is both exquisite and haunting, it provides the audience with the raw, stripped back emotion of a loss that comes from within. The depiction of a bereavement of an unborn baby, the words that aren’t spoken, the sympathy, the blame. This play is both compelling and effective, and lingers with you. The acting is superb and the movement of the physical bodies coupled with the use of music as an external layer provide depth and beauty.
Cold is available to watch for free here until the 6th February.