Albert and Bettina are liberals who make their substantial income from writing books with pompous titles and making art films that nobody watches. Albert’s best friend, Konrad (Gerald Kyd), is an artist who shuns labels. Bettina’s mother, Corrina, is a walking disaster zone whose hunger for affection is exceeded only by her lack of social awareness. And into this dynamic walks Rudolph (David Beames), an initially charming, yet increasingly eccentric man who befriended Corrina during a train journey. As a sophisticated, modern audience we know from the beginning to distrust Rudolph, but what Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play (neatly translated by David Tushingham) achieves so efficiently is to evoke that slowly building fear that we have not only welcomed a monster into our home, but that through politeness, and a failure to object, we have unwittingly allowed monstrous ideas to take control over the people around us.
Co-produced by the Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company, Winter Solstice begins with a familiar scene. It’s Christmas Eve, we are told, and as the snow falls outside. Bettina (Kirsty Besterman) argues with her husband, Albert (Felix Hayes). Instead of trading accusations from the comfort of a three-piece suite, though, our couple sit with the remaining three cast members behind generic office desks. To complicate matters further, the tables at which they sit are cluttered with numerous random objects which appear to have no purpose other than to serve as props that vaguely symbolise other objects, while their dialogue alternates between naturalistic conversation, internal monologues and cinematic narration. This chorus-like narrative allows us to adopt a far more detached perspective on the events and conversations that will follow.
The ensemble cast worked so exceptionally well together that it would be impossible to single out one member for praise. At two hours long, with no interval, Winter Solstice was occasionally uncomfortable viewing, but thanks to such emotive performances the experience was never less than engaging and occasionally sublime. Occasionally their inventive use of surroundings came at the expense of their delivery of lines, and the general pace of the play sagged once or twice, but these are minor niggles. With obvious allusions to the rise of national socialism, and also to recent events both at home and abroad, one would be forgiven for expecting few laughs from such a play, but the director and cast have mined the play’s sly humour for some genuine belly laughs which served only to augment the play’s increasingly tragic undertones. Consequently, this was the most intellectually demanding and emotionally moving play I’ve witnessed in over a decade.