FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Ramin Gray with design by Lizzie Clachan, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s latest play Winter Solstice translated by David Tushingham opens at the Orange Tree in partnership with Actors Touring Company. Jack Knowles’ lighting and Alexander Caplen’s sound prove integral to the drama. Till February 11th.
Winter Solstice. An innocuous title. Roland Schimmelpfennig’s latest play translated by David Tushingham opens at the Orange Tree in partnership with Actors Touring Company, directed by Ramin Gray with design by Lizzie Clachan where Jack Knowles’ lighting plays to a higher voltage than usual. Alexander Caplen’s sound replicates piano and in one startling sequence, voice.
Schimmelpfennig’s the most-performed German playwright, though we’d hardly register it. In this post-Brexit era such internationalism seems further away even than before. And that’s the subtext of this classically-designed gambit about an unexpected guest: let the right one in. It inevitably recalls Frisch’s The Arsonists and that whole tradition of post-war traduced liberalism.
In this play too, beware the one character not announcing their own thoughts like novelised third-persons or screen credits with timings. Schimmelpfennig’s playful mix of genres invites the audience to engage – and this is his special contribution, pushing any notion of complicity back to his audience. The drama’s dynamics are subjected to a kind of exo-skeletal exhibition. Subtexts become texts: to avoid a self-quoting tautology any action announced gets non-naturalistic treatment. A paintbrush is heralded but a marker pen or salt cellar’s held up as analogue. When a glass is shattered an orange stands in – then shockingly stamped on, making quite a mess.
Unexpected guest Rudolph, a doctor, is encountered on a train and invited in on a snowbound Christmas Eve by the romance-starved Corinna, mother of married Bettina whose home this is – Clachan’s set is all workshopping trestle tables and bric-a-brac like left-overs from a church bazaar. There’s a double fuss of Christmas tree erection, one conceptual bricolage, then a real one. Kate Fahy creams her voice, purrs her way through words she admires and encounters with Rudolph: ‘pride’ ‘chivalrous’ ‘decent’. All this despite perpetrating transparent lies Fahy enunciates in a comic masterclass of not-quite OTT insincerity.
Rudolph proceeds to romance not just Corinna, but everybody – all of whom pride themselves on enlightened behaviour. That’s the catch too as Nicholas Le Prevost’s Rudolph seduces everyone with baritonal authority, even the reluctant Bettina played with vixenish suavity by Laura Rogers, a filmmaker whose work is more success d’estime than popular; and whose need for an instinctually simple man plays out both sexy and scary in its implications.
All seduced then save husband Albert (Dominic Rowan) writing earnestly of Christmas in Auschwitz and perpetually on the defensive, even more so when repeatedly called by (off-stage) secretary Naomi who’s clearly distressed by the trajectory of their affair. Later she delivers a parcel with a letter and return of money – which Albert can’t read because Corinna’s sat on his reading glasses. Rowan’s glowering performance consummates that liberal agon: half-hesitant, half out of his seat but always stayed by the diffidence that falters.
Derided for polite cowardice by Bettina Albert swaps places in resentment as she by contrast is seduced by Rudolph and genuinely seduces another guest, Albert’s old friend impecunious painter Konrad (Milo Twomey makes articulate work of the tongue-tied expressionist). Meanwhile Albert watches his (off-stage) daughter’s contamination – Rudolph encourages her by example to click heels and salute, commending ‘the bright eyes of a child. Red cheeks. A healthy girl’.
Rudolph plays Chopin ‘very well’ he informs us, as he does several of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. Le Provost strikingly resembles conductor Herbert von Karajan too, not without point. His reasonableness is absolute: Le Prevost brings a civilised veneer so smooth its menace cracks just once.
At one point as a party-bonding exercise Rudolph cajoles most of his adopted hosts to enact his idea of an opera in horn-whoops which replicates his meeting Corinna but in a sub-Wagnerian manner, all Wanderer in the alps. These ensemble moments are delicious, as is the mimicking of half-heard conversation.
Rudolph talks too of the old gods, Odin, how important it is to trace the north, cultural identity ‘we need unity’, and ‘boundaries’ and in all kinds of queasy post-echoes about purity and finally how aphids must be crushed to produce purple as the painter Konrad knows. Rudolph produces a bottle of water giving life for a thousand years for everyone to drink – and to the Winter Solstice.
By this time we’re relatively certain where we’re headed. certainly Albert is, alert to his own heritage (Naomi as a name isn’t accidental either). But quite apart from a chronological glitch we’re presented with a rewind after the shocking denouement with language and projections that has to be seen, then denied – not unlike Florian Zeller’s The Father. And for similar befuddled reasons: Albert’s been overdosing on prescription drugs to cope.
Its this denial and how the drama concludes that sends any complacent liberal out into the chill air to stop thinking this ‘reasonable’ behaviour couldn’t arrive here. It already has. Schimmelpfennig’s apparently naturalistic fable is more than timely. As a dead-of-winter warning, it urges us to recalibrate, rewind our imaginations to the point where we might stop the tide of reasonable boundaries tightening into a noose.