DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Winter Solstice – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Writer: Roland Schimmelpfennig

Translator: David Tushingham

Director: Alice Malin

Designer: Lizzie Clachan

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Roland Schimmelpfennig is apparently one of Germany’s most performed playwrights at the moment, which says a fair bit for the discrimination of the German theatre-going public. Even if it is never easy to assess how a translation might differ from the original, David Tushingham’s version appears idiomatically at home with the author’s intentions, though references to “my struggle” will inevitably resonate less than “mein Kampf”.  As it emerges in the English version, Winter Solstice is gently, occasionally raucously, amusing, but also challenging to audiences in its originality and its use of allusion and ambiguity no less than in its interval-free duration of an hour and three quarters.

The story on the surface amounts to very little. Bettina and Albert are an artistic intellectual middle-class couple, he a prolific writer in various forms, she an experimental film-maker. They are quarrelling in the first seconds of the play, specifically over the arrival of her mother, Corinna, for Christmas and Bettina’s leaving Albert with the chore of greeting her. Tensions clearly go deep and they are brought nearer the surface with the appearance of Rudolph, a stranger whom Corinna has met on the train and invited to join them. The arrival of Konrad, Albert’s oldest friend and the perpetrator of vast, hideous (one presumes) canvases that dominate the room, does nothing to increase the amount of Christmas cheer on offer. Towards the end alternative scenarios are offered, but – if the more violent reactions are taken as Albert’s pills- and booze-fuelled intentions, not actions – the play ends with people who don’t get on pretending to do just that. 

Much of the power of what in many ways is a clever comedy comes from the character of Rudolph, a doctor who has been living in Paraguay – shades of Josef Mengele and other Nazis. He is charming and plays the piano beautifully, but talks conversationally of racial purity and questions whether Jews were ever any good at writing music, and so on. Bettina and Albert’s left-wing liberal credentials are impeccable, but in their middle-class world, there is no way of getting rid of Rudolph. Meanwhile, the other fissures in the marriage become gaping cracks.

Ramin Gray’s production for Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre was a triumph last year; now it has been most effectively re-worked for the Actors Touring Company by Alice Malin, with a different cast, but the same defining set design by Lizzie Clachan. The action takes place in a rehearsal room, with four cluttered tables surrounded by five chairs, both tables and chairs on wheels. The actors in ordinary street clothes act out the play, but also read in stage directions, observations about character and thoughts and even periodic time-checks. As the actors become increasingly involved in their characters, they whizz tables and chairs about in different formations, but it’s fairly late in the play before they begin to stand and walk as normal practice.

This has a distancing effect, encouraging the audience to become as much involved in ideas as in the characters. Felix Hayes (Albert), Kirsty Besterman (Bettina), Marian McLoughlin (Corinna), David Beames (Rudolph) and Gerald Kyd (Konrad) are all extremely adept at putting over this extra dimension in a performance that, by involving the audience in its mixture of action, narration, explanation and questioning, well suits an intimate in-the-round space.

Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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