The arrival of Roland Schimmelpfenning’s Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree couldn’t be more timely. Just days before Trump’s inauguration, his excoriating look at the failure of the ‘metropolitan elites’ to act against the neo-fascist charm offensive proves chillingly prescient.
By the end, our ‘hero’ member of the liberal intelligentsia, Albert, watches his family worship at the altar of the neo-Nazi guest that he himself has welcomed into his elegant home. He’s out of his head on prescription meds and good red wine, to paralysed to act. He can only imagine a less cowardly version of himself ejecting this monster from his domain. (Although I can imagine he might have sent a few angry Tweets about the monster while out of the room. We all know the type.)
Our elegant liberal elites are (pretentious) writer Albert and his (pretentious) film-maker wife, Bettina. Their long relationship and perfect life is characterised by mutual disappointment -none more so than as they welcome Bettina’s trying mother Corinna and her new ‘friend’ Rudolph into their home on Christmas Eve. As Albert’s good red wine flows (River of Blood anyone?), Rudolph worms his way into their affections and reels them in one by one, feeding his guests’ frustrations and anxieties with beautiful music and elegant-sounding, simple solutions to the aching gaps in their lives.
Much of Winter Solstice’s triumph rests in the fact that Rudolph says very little directly about his monstrous beliefs. Much of the play focuses on the petty power-plays and simmering tensions of family life: the cracks that allow the ugliness to creep in. Schimmelpfenning reels in the audience in too: our empathy for their entitled but ultimately unfulfilling lives makes us alert to our own weakness for soothing narratives and comforting ideologies.
It’s also fascinatingly formally inventive. The five characters speak the stage directions and expose interior lives, as well as saying their dialogue. Director Ramin Gray and designer Lizzie Clachan enhance this remove from a literal staging still further. They set the scene as if we are watching a read-through or rehearsal: there are office tables and chairs littered with the detritus of a day on the job. From this the actors garner their props – think Tic Tacs for tablets and Itsu spoons for wine glasses. The five-strong cast evoke an air of relaxed nonchalance, casually munching on clementines and wheeling around in their chairs. While, on occasion, this tips over into twee, it also acts as a clever filter through which to experience the characters’ casual acceptance of Rudolph’s doctrine, while also acting a framing device and metaphor for the way stories powerfully construct ideology. Rudolph sets the scene, adds the music and effects, in the same way Bettina makes her films and Rasmin Gray creates Winter Solstice, and his audience is trapped.
But genuine nonchalance it is not. The wonderful cast perform mini technical miracles, breathing life into Schimmelpfenning’s sharply observed petty jealousies and treatment of life’s day-to-day disappointments, making the whole thing look easy. Nicholas Le Prevost as Rudolph is effortlessly believable as a bumbling yet brutalising seducer of Kate Fahy’s waspishly lonely Corinna. Dominic Rowan is perfectly cast as the affable yet ineffectual Albert who provokes pity and praise, while Milo Twomey nails the petulant, self-involved artist Konrad.
Their frenetic energy and detritus-dancing keeps what might otherwise be an excessively talky play ploughing along or, indeed, might just as easily prove irritatingly distracting depending on your taste and mood. Yet while there are still moments that flag and the end note rang a bit too high for me, Winter Solstice is an inventive play that steers a witty and clear path through fascism to deliver a powerful dispatch for our times.
Winter Solstice is on until 11 February 2017 at the Orange Tree Theatre. Click here for more details.