Wednesday 25 January 2017

Theatre Review: Winter Solstice (Orange Tree)

Winter Solstice (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

I first became aware of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s work a few years ago when Actors Touring Company’s production of the playwright’s The Golden Dragon transferred from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the Arcola. Translated by David Tushingham and directed by Ramin Gray, the production made a huge impression, its playful, eccentric form gradually revealing a deeply serious meditation on the exploitations of globalisation and capitalism in the contemporary metropolis. (Though with its “Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese” restaurant setting, and an all-Caucasian cast playing characters of diverse ethnicities, ages and even species, it’s likely that Gray’s production would be less warmly received in our current "#StopYellowface" moment.)

ATC, Gray and Tushingham now re-team on a more recent Schimmelpfennig play in a production at the Orange Tree.  Winter Solstice initially sounds like a more conventional prospect than The Golden Dragon: the piece focuses on a family gathering being disrupted by the presence of an outsider. We meet Bettina and Albert - she’s a filmmaker and he’s an academic - mid-Christmas Eve barney. The subject of their row is Bettina’s mother Corrina, who, it transpires, has invited to the couple’s apartment a stranger that she met on the train. Rudolph Meyer is a cultured older gent who’s soon settled in and is charming the hosts with civilised chat and classical music at the piano. But Albert gradually senses something sinister under the guest’s rhetoric about chivalry, decency and community. 

Nicolas Le Prevost in Winter Solstice  (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

Those familiar with Schimmelpfennig’s work won’t be surprised by the ways in which this familiar set-up is subverted through meta apparatus. For a start, stage directions are spoken by the cast, who slip between first- and third-person, at once inhabiting their characters’ experiences and standing outside of them. Gray’s production accentuates the play’s “baring the device” self-consciousness, with Lizzie Clachan supplying a rehearsal room set, and a creative approach to props  (dig that Christmas tree!) throughout.

The mix of play, film, novel and radio drama that Schimmelpfennig has fashioned has its drawbacks: we’re told so much about the characters’ thoughts and feelings that some interpretive space is removed. But the distanciation, treated by Gray with wit and lightness of touch, can also be dazzlingly effective, allowing for fluid shifts in perspective and time. (This is appropriate for a play that’s very much concerned with the abiding presence of the past.) These shifts are negotiated with consummate skill by the cast, with fine work from Kate Fahy as Corinna, vacillating between mordant bitterness and hopeful flirtation; Laura Rogers as the prickly Bettina; Dominic Rowan as the increasingly harried Albert; Milo Twomey as an artist friend; and Nicholas Le Prevost as the insinuating, ambiguous Rudolph. 

Nicholas Le Prevost and Dominic Rowan in Winter Solstice

The play has been interpreted as a sharply topical piece: inspired by Schimmelpfennig’s concern about the resurgence of far right movements, it’s been stated in no uncertain terms that Rudolph represents the return of fascism, insidiously seducing its way into a liberal household.

In performance, though, the play feels like a much more slippery, psychological - and perhaps richer - creation than this blunt interpretation suggests. Kindly grandfather figure, potential paramour, Nazi… Rudolph gradually comes to seem like a projection of the other characters’ fantasises or fears. The play pulls the rug from under us right up to the end, as Albert -  agitated, pill-popping and influenced by his fascism-related research  - starts to seem less and less like a reliable witness. As such, the production’s final moments are perfectly judged, striking just the right balance between comfort and chill. Obvious political readings of Winter Solstice are certainly possible, but it’s as a deeply ambiguous portrait of the shifting significance of a stranger that Schimmelpfennig’s haunting play resonates the most.

Winter Solstice is booking until 11 February. Further information here.