Midwinter

Zinnie Harris
RSC Newcastle season
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2004)

There is a mythic quality about Midwinter. At the end of a war lasting for ten years, Grenville, a soldier, retuns home to Maud, his wife, and son. But she is not his wife, but her twin sister Magda (or is she?), and the boy Isaac is not Maud's or even Magda's child but Sirin, a boy she (whoever she is) has bought from his grandfather Leonard.

The play begins with an almost archetypal image of the effects of a long and debilitating war: Maud is seen hacking off bits of a dead horse and stuffing them into her mouth. She buys Sirin with a promise to feed him.

And then there is the enigmatic figure of Trent who brings news of the ending of the war and through whose eyes we see the effects of the restarting of the war at the end of the play. Ths change of perspective is significant, for Grenville, in a scene reminiscent of the blinding of Gloucester in Lear, has lost his sight.

These are powerful multi-layered images, and they are reinforced by a language which, although on the surface everyday, is in fact a degree or two removed from naturalism. I was reminded of Harris' Further Than the Furthest Thing, set among the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha, which had a poetic language similarly divorced from the everyday, and my companion remarked that she was reminded very much of Christopher Fry.

It is a play which remains with you long after you leave the theatre, the mind teasing out further depths - just the effect, in fact, that myth has upon us.

Ruth Gemmell's Maud/Magda gave us the sense of madness lurking beneath the surface, an air of barely suppressed desperation, whilst Pal Aron as Grenville was the text-book returned soldier, relieved to be back home and yet on an emotional knife-edge. Sean Hannaway's Trent, a pale grey figure, was suitably enigmatic, whilst John Normington (Leonard, the grandfather), starting out as a worried grandparent grew into a presence of enormous threat to Maud, his slow, almost portentous, delivery seeming initially to be due to a slowness of mind, but gradually turning into a measured menace.

I was impressed by the performance of young Jean-Claude Thompson whose seemingly autistic or, at any rate, traumatised Sirin left possibly the most haunting image of all in a production full of them.

"Midwinter" runs at Live until 6th November

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Soho Theatre, London

Reviewer: Peter Lathan