Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree Theatre
One doesn’t have to work very hard to see the relevance of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice. Starting with an uninvited guest – on Christmas Eve no less – the German playwright wraps this hoary old trope in layers of self-conscious narration and troubling politics. Initial discussions about art and music let hints of fascism bleed into the room masquerading as common sense, slowly changing the tone of the conversation enough to allow more overt Mein Kampf-isms to pass without protest.
Even when alarm bells do ring they are brushed aside with grimly familiar dismissals. One character exclaims that at least Rudolph is “not boring”; at worst, he is merely “mad” not “dangerous” as her partner pleads. It would be too on the nose if the play didn’t debut in Stockholm at the start of 2015, before America’s Wotsit-in-a-wig properly began to gather momentum. Of course, Trump’s not the only analogy; the little England of Nigel Farage, Marie Le Pen’s noxious Front National and their counterparts across the rest of Europe can all be glimpsed in Rudolph’s rhetoric.
Beyond the interloper’s appeal to the aimless young and neglected old there is also the sense that the family, a group of middle-class caricatures, are so wrapped up in their own issues that they can’t escape their bubble for long enough to challenge the Nazi in their midst. Schimmelpfennig seems to suggest the failure of society’s safest members to confront the vileness produced by men like Rudolph is just as responsible for fascism’s re-emergence as the people who spout such hatred.
The message is one to get behind; the method, however, is somewhat lacking. While the narration yields plenty of gentle laughs, it leaves the performances very little room to breathe. The pace of the piece is also far too meandering; though one could argue that’s the point – the gradual assimilation of toxic ideas – in practice it can be soporific.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is Nicholas Le Provost’s performance as Rudolph. The charm required for this man to be accepted, in any way, never materialises. Whilst his benign nature at the start of the play may be intentional, when Rudolph is labelled as “mad” or “dangerous” it doesn’t ring true. Elsewhere the performances are stronger, especially Dominic Rowan’s increasingly incredulous – and sozzled – Albert and the Kate Fahy’s unfailingly flirtatious Corinna. It is just a shame the production isn’t as sharp as Schimmelpfennig’s grasp of the way the modern right works.
Winter Solstice is on at the Orange Tree Theatre from 17th January to 11th February 2017, for further information or to book a visit here.