If theatre is home to lies that impart truths, then this Actors Touring Company’s production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice (translated by David Tushingham) makes no attempt to suspend our disbelief; the cast of six are dressed casually and, for the most part, sit around a group of tables on an “undressed” stage, covered with the detritus of paper cups, bottles of water, nibbles and scrap paper typical of any theatrical or television read-through.
Lingers in the mind afterwards.
We’re introduced to middle-class intellectuals Albert (Felix Hayes) and Bettina (Kirsty Besterman) already bickering about who should chat with Bettina’s newly-arrived mother, Corinna (Marian McLoughlin). Part of the stress is thanks to them not yet knowing how long she’s going to be staying, although it’s likely to be until after their (referenced, but never seen) daughter’s birthday – some two weeks away. There are, of course, whole lifetimes of resentments and misunderstandings between the three, some of which are slowly revealed during the course of the play. What brings them into focus is the arrival of Rudolph (David Beames).
Corinna met him on her snow-bound train; thanks to his chivalry to her in a time of need, she invited the lonesome Rudolph to join her for Christmas. He is undoubtedly elegant and distinguished, an excellent pianist, full of charm, modesty and learning. Yet there’s something about him which puts the increasingly stressed-out, medicine-taking Albert on edge; a potentially nasty undercurrent in some of his ideas and views about art, civilisation and the nature of humanity. Given his self-declared residency in Paraguay – though he’s clearly not from there – is there a hint of a Nazi survivor?
Schimmelpfennig’s play works on several levels; most obviously, there’s the all-too-recognisable drama in a family stressed out by the self-imposed closeness of Christmas; in which the only seemingly happy individual is their young daughter, who we never see or hear directly. There’s the stylistic approach of the cast not just speaking their dialogue but also commenting on their thoughts and actions, informing us of the time of each scene, every moment, as events seem to hurtle increasingly towards a major crisis. And there’s a brilliant moment when the metaphorical rug is effectively pulled from under our feet.
Simple choreography – the tables are at several points rearranged to indicate different perspectives on the narrative’s location – adds to what might initially appear to be a show with no obvious design, despite the subtle wit employed in the cast using “to hand” objects as props. Undoubtedly, director Alice Malin, in this touring revival, does a very good job ensuring a clarity and speed to proceedings that holds the attention, and lingers in the mind afterwards.