“A new world which will last for ever…”
I’m pretty sure every time a German production is mounted in the UK, it is slapped with the mantle of ‘most popular contemporary German playwright’ (see Franz Xaver Kroetz’s The Nest from late last year) – a sign that audiences here still have to be led gently by the hand towards European drama with whispered encouragements of ‘well he is the best they have, you know’.
This time, it is Roland Schimmelpfennig’s turn, as his 2013 play Winter Solstice receives its British premiere at the Orange Tree in this Actors Touring Company production directed by Ramin Gray. And it is well worth the effort as though it may flirt with the experimental, it also cuts through to the elemental – as piercing an insight into the rise of the far right as we’ve seen on any stage.
In David Tushingham’s translation, we witness Albert and Bettina’s Christmas Eve disrupted by the arrival of Bettina’s mother, who has brought with her a man she met on the train. Rudolph initially seems a smooth charmer, tickling the ivories with some Bach, but as he steers the conversation towards notions of ‘old-fashioned decency’, it becomes apparent that the reindeer games here have a decidedly neo-Nazi bent.
Schimmelpfennig is excellent at showing how surreptitiously such beliefs can be (re)introduced into the collective consciousness but it is his use of spoken stage directions that surprises and delights, deepening both the portrayal and our understanding of character and crucially adding a vein of wickedly dark comedy that plays out in Lizzie Clachan’s deliberately lo-fi design under Jack Knowles’ lighting.
Powerfully acted – particularly by Nicholas Le Prevost’s increasingly insidious Rudolph and Dominic Rowan’s increasingly impotent Albert – and intelligently directed, Winter Solstice is a devastating warning against ignoring the lessons of the past, and one is tempted to think, a reminder of the dangers of turning our back on our European neighbours and all that could be shared.