Even if politics bores you to tears, you can’t have helped but notice a few changes to the faces on the news recently. A certain toupé wearing world leader counts among his many flaws an inability not to be noticed, and his rise, along with the alarming resurgence of far-right parties across various European countries, has not gone unnoticed in the world of theatre. Winter Solstice, produced jointly by Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre, is one theatrical response to these events. Billed as a “razor-sharp comedy about the rise of the new right across the globe”, it’s a piece that gives itself quite the challenge: creating laughter out of hatred and fear.
The play was written by highly acclaimed German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, who has chosen to explore his topic by depicting the Christmas Eve celebrations of a comfortably wealthy middle-class household. Albert and Bettina, the home owning couple, are watching their marriage slowly disintegrate, bickering constantly over next to nothing. Their problems are exacerbated by the arrival of Bettina’s mother, Corinna, whose relationship with both her daughter and son-in-law is uncomfortable at best, and woeful at worst. Corinna is visiting for an undetermined period over Christmas, much to the delight of Bettina and Albert’s daughter, Marie. Just as it appears that the family can just about get on over the holiday for the sake of the child, Rudolph arrives at the door. A complete stranger to Albert and Bettina, he met Corinna on the train and she invited him to stay, unaware of his mysterious past and far-right views.
From reading it alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the set-up is jam-packed with stereotypes, and that’s before mentioning that Albert is a writer and Bettina, an independent filmmaker. You spend half the play waiting for them to pop-out to Waitrose or start talking about their next ski-holiday. But stereotypes have their place in the theatre, and Winter Solstice avoids the clumsiness of staging them by making the bold decision to stage the play as though it were a rehearsed reading. There’s the distinct whiff of epic-theatre, with the cast sitting around several folding tables covered with stationary, snacks, and papers, as though they have just shown up to read the play together for the first time. All of them take a turn at narration, switching fluidly between their role and the roles of their characters, and it is here that the company find much of the comedy. The narrator describes a required prop, and the cast member “improvises” this with a nearby item, using a pencil as a mobile phone and so on. It’s an approach that is traditionally used to emphasise themes and messages in a play by preventing the audience from getting drawn into the specific events onstage and instead nudging them to think about the wider points being made.
Yet it doesn’t seem to accomplish that here; in fact, it’s a struggle to see what the staging brings to the play other than a few cheap laughs. The cast gamely try to bring their characters to life, and Kirsty Besterman’s Bettina alongside Davin Beames’ Rudolph are particular standouts, skilfully evoking a bitter, wry frustration and an insidious, polite extremism respectively. But the staging is effectively working against them. As the narration describes the house or a character in great detail, all we want to do is see it, to watch it unfold instead of constantly being told what it is. The characters are neither truly believable as individuals or as symbols of some wider concept.
Most frustrating of all, this isn’t a play about the rise of the new right at all. It’s a play about the old right, about the fascist right of 90 years ago. Rudolph is a ghost summoned from Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, not the alt-right world of unsavoury blog posts and purported defences of free speech. If the entire play is a parable for how the middle classes fail to stand up to the far-right and are often taken in by them, then it is a muddled one. If the play is about this individual family and their problems, then it is a bizarre one. An intelligent concept that just isn’t quite right.