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Winter Solstice an ‘extraordinary play’ – Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Dominic Rowan in Winter Solstice - Orange Tree Theatre
Dominic Rowan in Winter Solstice – Orange Tree Theatre – photo by Stephen Cummiskey

The visit of the unexpected stranger is a familiar element of drama as with Goole in Priestley’s The Inspector Calls or with Goldberg and McCann in Pinter’s The Birthday Party in both of which plays the stranger challenges the status quo and leaves it utterly changed. This is also the premise of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s brilliant new play Winter Solstice at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in a clever translation by David Tushingham directed by Ramin Gray. As with Priestley and Pinter there is a metaphor at work – though a quite subtle one. We are today living in times where the expected realities of how we live have been interrupted by what seem almost alien forces. With Trump in America, Brexit in Britain and the rise of extremes across Europe the mould seems to have been broken. To try and understand this we may look back to (for example) Germany in the 1920s and 1930s whereas Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw put it “a highly cultured, economically advanced, modern state allowed into power and entrusted their fate to a political outsider with few, if any, special talents beyond undoubted skills as a demagogue and propagandist”. Winter Solstice also has an intellectually strong, cultured norm – Albert and his wife Bettina – invaded by an outsider whose values, somewhat at obscure at first, emerge to be dangerously alien.

The format and dramatic style of the play is unusual. It is almost like a read-through early in a play’s rehearsal stage in that the “set” isn’t really a set at all and there are no realistic props or costumes. And the stage directions and author’s explanations are read out as a form of narration. This is a source of much of the play’s comedy – it is very funny at times – but also adds rather than takes away from the authenticity for the audience who are engaged throughout.

It is Christmas Eve and we are in “A wealthy, middle-class living room in our time” where Albert and Bettina, he a successful writer of moral philosophy she a prolific director of artistic films, are bickering. The country is unspecified but we get the message when we hear that “The people who live here have never voted for a conservative party in their lives”.

The presence of Bettina’s mother, Corinna, is part of the reason for the angst but in fact we soon rumble that the marriage is fragile and each of them is seeking or enjoying consolation elsewhere. On the shelves above Albert’s desk we see not just his own works (including “Dictatorship and Death”) but also “books by other authors – on the Third Reich, on fascism, on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust”.

The stranger Rudolf arrives. He had met Corinna on a train the day before and she had apparently invited him to visit her. From the start he “creates the slight impression of coming from another time”. Corinna is delighted: “What a surprise. How lovely”. And in justifying the invitation she made to him “…he had nowhere to go – there were no more trains because of the snow… he’s got nobody – like me”. Rudolf and Corinna are the same age – a generation older than both Albert and Bettina and their artist friend Konrad Rudolf is mysterious – he says he is from Paraguay but says that he is not Paraguayan “Do I look like one… they’re really tiny. Like dwarves… and they’ve got tiny fingers, tiny eyes and tiny feet.”. Gradually more remarks like this emerge and we begin to realise that Rudolf has, to put in mildly, some very odd opinions. He does, however, play the piano “very, very well” and music comes into the mix – Chopin and Bach. This, however, is also a source of concern.

Music,” Rudolf says, “is order. The world order” and the “cosmic order”. And on Chopin “Chopin was Polish – Polish – who would have thought… there aren’t many Polish composers.” And then “There just aren’t any Jewish composers, well I can’t think of any”.

The world order, in Rudolf’s mind, becomes clearer later: “One must know one’s place. Like an orchestra. Everyone has their place. Not everyone is the conductor. It’s Latin. Conduce: the Leader”.

This is a bit too much for Albert with its unsubtle salute to an authoritarian leadership style and to “The leader” – which in the original language of the play would, of course, have been “Der Führer”!

Shortly after this Rudolf is invited with Corinna to visit Bettina and Albert’s young daughter’s room “Oh yes. I stand with my troops at the ready” (he clicks his heels and salutes)! Meanwhile Corinna is becoming increasingly infatuated with Rudolf behaving, says Albert, “Like a seventeen-year- old tart”.

The main stories which includes Bettina’s attraction to the artist Konrad, Albert’s affair with his much younger work colleague Naomi, Albert’s pill-popping, Corinna’s loneliness, Konrad’s sense of failure and the rest all become rather subordinate to Rudolf’s increasingly worrying language and hints about what his preferred “world order” is. When he is told that Konrad’s painting is called “The struggle” he asks “My Struggle?” which (again) in the original would have been “Mein Kampf” and rather more shocking! This reaches its apotheosis when he later says “… is one allowed to kill a human being? No! But sometimes it has to be done… if it serves a higher cause” A “Night of the Long Knives” reference perhaps – or worse. That it might be worse comes towards the end of the play, when, unprovoked, he turns on Albert and says “Who do you actually think you are – you filthy Jew” – the mask has finally slipped. Before that Albert, high on pills and alcohol, has decided that Rudolf is a “monster” – indeed that he is the “Butcher of Auschwitz” (Rudolf Höss about whom he is writing a book). From Rudolf’s “Anyone who does not serve mankind betrays the species… might be human in the biological sense perhaps, but in actual fact he is no longer part of mankind” we can see why Albert might think that – though it is a delusion as Höss was hanged at Nuremberg and unlike Joseph Mengele did not escape to South America – and become a Paraguayan citizen!

Winter Solstice, like An Inspector Calls leaves one unsure who the visitor really is – his mystery is intact. As Rudolf puts it we may reach conclusions but are they the “right conclusions from the wrong hypothesis”… or the wrong conclusions form the right hypothesis”. As you leave the theatre after this extraordinary play you won’t be quite sure!

The cast of five is quite excellent in what is a demanding two hours without a break. The direction is sure-footed and the staging very clever. The Actors Touring Company has worked with the Orange Tree on this production – it is a triumph.

5 Star Rating

Review by Paddy Briggs

Christmas Eve. Bettina and her husband Albert aren’t happy. Bettina’s mother is staying for the holidays. Which is awkward. Not least because Bettina’s mother met a man on the train. And now she’s invited him around for drinks…

Family, betrayal and the inescapable presence of the past reverberate through the UK premiere of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s razor-sharp comedy.

Previous plays include The Golden Dragon and Arabian Night both presented by Actors Touring Company.

Schimmelpfennig is the most performed playwright in Germany and one of the country’s most exciting original voices, with productions of his work worldwide in over 40 countries.

“ATC produces work that inspires me to reconsider what a play can be and what theatre can do. Magical.” Simon Stephens

Estimated running time 1 hour 55 minutes
This is an Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company co-production.
https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/

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