There are some things that only the medium of theatre can do justice to. The co-production of Winter Solstice from the Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre is one of those things. Currently playing out to enthralled audiences at Home Manchester, it is a beguiling, betwixting and brainstorming evening of dysfunctionality that the medium of television or film could not bring to life as much as you could by placing it on the stage. For it is that ethereal connection that you only get by being in the presence of something extraordinary!
The Actors Touring Company have become renowned for making international contemporary theatre. It’s wholly provocative productions are meant to prick the conscience of the audience, so that it questions the world around us. In Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play Winter Solstice (translated from the original German by David Tushingham) it examines the rise of the right and how it has the capacity to seduce those that should be the ones that recognise the danger.
Winter Solstice sees one such liberal family beset by the kind of bourgeoisie melodrama that you would expect from an upwardly mobile set of libertarians. Albert, the social historian, whose marriage to his artist wife, Bettina, is not all that it seems, her relationship with her aging mother, Corinna, dominates proceedings, as does Bettina’s mutual infatuation with her husband’s childhood friend and artist Konrad. It has all the hallmarks of a kitchen sink drama, a kind of Germanic Abigail’s Party. Yet, it is the introduction of Rudolph, an old man who had met Corrina on her train journey, who invites himself on the eve of Christmas (and the Winter Solstice) and gently enchants everyone around him.
The themes require you to invest yourself in the production completely. Indeed, Schimmelpfennig’s play does not make it easy for you to join the dots. In fact, the production does not even make it easy for you to see the dots let alone where and how they need to be joined.
The set is spartan, with everyday household objects strewn on a number of office tables. The cast are not in any recognisable costumes or garb. They bellow out instructions mid scene, asking you to visualize the setting, there are interruptions to blemish the scene with character profiling and then there scenes which are played out in the wrong time setting (the television cool kids call them flash forwards, or flashbacks). There is no interval and it’s not a short play either, with a running time of almost two hours. It’s also a good twenty minutes before the play’s protagonist, Rudolph, makes an appearance.
This is not good old fashioned theatre that you can just wander in from the seats hoping that somehow you can just wallow in it and that by the end you will be richer for the experience.
Nonetheless, at times it is totally and utterly captivating. There’s a cosy rapport between the cast, who need to be on their toes to deliver a myriad of complicated lines. There’s wonderful symmetry to it all, with different cast members starting particular pieces of dialogue only for others to take over and finish like they were part of some sort of Olympic relay team. And those household items are wonderfully used, as props, as sound effects and as a wonderful makeshift Christmas Tree.
Moreover, I can see why the themes and the methodology in its delivery would prove to be a hit in its native Germany. After all it has a troubled history with the right wing and the struggle to reconcile the differences would resonate with them. Yet, I cannot help but think that producing this for an audience over here is even more of a masterstroke of genius.
Schimmelpfennig himself thinks the spectre of extremism is blatant within the play and that the focus of the family’s liberal machinations are nothing but diversionary. This is echoed by Ramin Gray, the Artistic Director of the Actors Touring Company, in a recent interview:
“How is it possible that someone could turn up and be such a blatant Nazi and yet, one by one, everyone waves it through? I mean, it’s totally obvious from the get-go who this man is. It’s not like there’s some big reveal … It’s so obvious, and yet no one says a thing.”
To an audience that loves its kitchen sink dramas, that focus on the familial discord, our attention is momentarily distracted to what is actually going on. The subtlety of Rudolph’s dialogue, talking of unity, the rhetoric of using art and culture to talk of nationalistic ideals can all be lost in a haze in this part of the world. We’d rather be entranced by the breakdown of relationships than see the seduction from the right.
That is the ultimate irony of Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice and its sensational denouement .
Verdict: An extraordinary piece of theatre that lulls you into a story of a family beset by an undercurrent of issues that you almost forget the dangerous stranger peddling his extremist views. Be careful of who you let in!