Saturday, 21 January 2017

Theatre review: Winter Solstice

As has become increasingly apparent over the last few years, the rest of the world doesn't seem to think Gemany might have any insights on fascism worth listening to. But the Germans, bless them, keep trying, with the latest warning coming from Roland Schimmelpfennig, whose Winter Solstice comes to the Orange Tree in a translation by David Tushingham. An upper middle class couple in a household we're told has never voted for a conservative party, Bettina (Laura Rogers) is a director of arthouse films nobody particularly wants to watch, while her husband Albert (Dominic Rowan) is a popular historian who's written a number of hit books. Both are having affairs, Bettina with Albert's best friend Konrad (Milo Twomey,) and the family tensions are particularly fraught as they wait for Bettina's mother to arrive.

Neither of them gets on that well with Corinna (Kate Fahy,) who turns up in with an unexpected extra guest: After flirting with Rudolph (Nicholas Le Prevost) on the train, she's invited him round for Christmas without warning her daughter and son-in-law.

Rudolph is a dapper gent whose sinister underside only Albert seems to notice - his writing specialises in the Nazis, so he finds uncomfortable warnings in the older man's praising of Wagner, fascination with Norse gods, claim to live in Paraguay and vague statements about a new world order of purity and strength. As he gets drunker and takes too many prescription anxiety pills, he even begins to believe Rudolph is an actual Nazi war criminal he thought had been executed for his experiments on prisoners.

In a staging that reminded me of his earlier production of another German play, The Ugly One, a few years back*, Ramin Gray's production has a rehearsal-room feel in a design by Lizzie Clachan. Taking its cue from Bettina's job as a filmmaker, we start with what loks like the table read of a film script, with the actors not only saying their own lines but also sharing all the stage directions, camera angles, and the character's background notes and thoughts - a lot of the play's comedy comes from the actors reacting and adjusting to some information about their inner world that we've just found out from a stage direction.

With German theatre largely written with expressionistic productions in mind, ironically I thought this one would actually get away with being played naturalistically - there's a really creepy thriller version of this play in there somewhere. But this is also very effective: As the actors move the tables around and use the stationery and snacks from the table read to represent objects in the story - including making a Christmas tree out of a tower of props - the production stays surreal and inventive.

So what we get is a twist on the thriller trope of a stranger with a dark secret invited into the home, played here with a mix of the chilling and darkly comic. Schimmelpfennig is very restrained in the way he presents Rudolph's increasingly sinister worldview and the way everyone except Albert is quickly drawn into accepting it. We even get a twist that puts a question mark over what we've seen from Albert's point of view, as we see the conclusion again from the perspective of his seven-year-old daughter, who in voiceover tells us how she woke up in the night and saw her father having a fit. It's a final nasty dig at how easy it is for concerns - like the playwright's own - to be written off until it's too late.

Winter Solstice by Roland Schimmelpfennig in a version by David Tushingham is booking until the 11th of February at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

*I say "a few years;" searching for it on my old blog reveals it was nearly nine years ago. The play is being revived at the Park later this year.

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