By Roland Schimmelpfennig
Translated by David Tushingham
Directed by Alice Malin
This production of Winter Solstice is co-produced by the Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company. The original production was first staged a year ago and coincided with the inauguration of a certain tow haired individual. Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig as a response to the resurgence of the far right in Europe, it remains an elegantly chilling observation of the dangers of harmful and subversive views infiltrating society and home. As glass after glass of red wine is poured on Christmas Eve so too is the slow and steady drip, drip, drip of poison from the lips of a benign stranger in this family home.
Lizzie Clachan gives us a stage sparsely set with trestle tables and swivel chairs. The tables are messy and disordered with water bottles, grapes, tic tac sweets, and empty plastic tubs and tape. This is the rehearsal room space in a theatre but could be a craft space for children. The performance runs straight through without an interval and is mainly fully lit giving an real sense of eavesdropping on an improvised scene rather rather than watching a play.
The result is curiously engaging. Schimmelpfennig has written this piece so the cast voice all the stage directions and create the sound effects themselves. The result is clever, funny and creative. A dropped glass baubles has the sound of shattering but is a dropped Satsuma squashed underfoot. Juice sprays out instead of shards of glass. Albert pops pills that are grapes or tic tacs. Throughout Alice Malin’s direction (reviving that of Ramin Gray) ensures that the cast are mainly seated on swivel chairs. They glide across stage moving tables to change the staging. This grows the sense of people trapped, unable or unwilling to exercise free will and stand on their own feet. Albert and Bettina are unable to not have Corinna visit each Christmas or curtail the length of her stay, just as they seem unable to leave a unhappy marriage. They are unable to stop a stranger with his suitcase entering their home on Christmas Eve. Perhaps in the same way we the audience are not offered an interval, and even if anyone wanted one, no one in the theatre speaks out.
The cast of five all give strong and compelling performances. They all play flawed characters who are each in their own way unpleasant and mean spirited. Fittingly there are no shining examples of humanity here even though we see parents, grandparents, artists and intellectuals. All are selfish, cruel and philandering and no one seems to have much empathy or kindness. The sinister stranger at the door appears initially to personify the better traits of humanity.
David Beames is excellent as the silken tongued snake who is courteous, benign and benevolent. He personifies the horror of the ingratiating stranger at the table playing music to a mainly rapt audience while his conversation becomes peppered with almost imperceptible Neo-nazi statements. We all seek others to meet our unmet needs from childhood. If what we seek is guidance,reassurance and nurturing, then we are all susceptible. The truly terrifying realisation is that we are all vulnerable to the voice of calm and reason. The insidious charm of a Pied Piper softly whispering as he leads us towards the “Right”path. We have to stop this mixing. This contamination. We had a garden and tgen the aphids came…..Boundaries exist……Beware of aphids.
It is only the hapless and cowardly Albert who as a social historian picks up on the subtle menace of this German doctor from Paraguay. Felix Hayes gives a vivid portrayal of this weak adulterer as he repeatedly unravels and pops pills to try to manage his anxiety and fear. He tries to speak up and expose this stranger/doctor/Butcher of Auschwitz but seen as weak and ineffective, he is unsupported by family and friends. A lone voice in the madness while an innocent child sleeps upstairs.
This dark and clever comedy is never boring. It is a timely lesson in observation and an invitation to really listen and dissect what we hear. With two apparent endings the rehearsal room scene has a crazed Albert lash out and assault Rudolph splashing red wine like blood with the childishly crafted Christmas tree flattened and destroyed. We see Rudolph reveal his true allegiance. Then the alternate staging of a real home with the fairy tale image of a real Christmas tree lit with candles and proper elegant glasses for a toast. Perhaps this really is a move from staged rehearsal to real life on this stage. The chilling image is of the stranger fully accepted. As the last candle is snuffed out, we, the audience are left in darkness. This is a call to arms, to light our own candles, listen to our own voices, heed our conscience. We all need to be watchful and ensure that no one ever has another Christmas in an Auschwitz.