Winter Solstice

Roland Schimmelpfennig translated by David Tushingham
Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre
The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth

David Beames (Rudolph), Marian McLoughlin (Corinna), Kirsty Besterman (Bettina) and Gerald Kyd (Konrad) Credit: Stephen Cummiskey

Spoiler alert: billed as a razor-sharp comedy about the rise of the right, Germany’s oft-performed playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice is primarily a subtle, amusing and rather engaging fly-on-the-wall observation of a dysfunctional family.

Written in response to the Fascist overtones of 2013-14, Schimmelpfennig explores the insidious infusion of neo-Nazism through an analogy of unexpected visitor invited (or not) to join the family dynamic on Christmas Eve, inveigling his way from stranger to (almost) everyone’s best friend.

Rudolph (an erstwhile David Beames) is old-fashioned, chivalrous and subtle. Visiting Germany from his adopted Paraguay (go figure), a chance encounter on a snow-bound train elicits an invitation from crotchety and infinitesimally lonely Corinna (beautifully observed by Marian McLoughlin) to join her for Christmas at her film director daughter and left-leaning family's bourgeoise, tasteful apartment.

The doctor enchants and entertains with Chopin and Bach, tales (occasionally bordering on rather theatrical soliloquy) of glorious mountains, the elixir of 1000 years’ life and exclusive, ordered, blond communities with shades of Hitler increasingly distinct as he forges alliances with lovestruck Corinna and young Marie (never seen but voiced by Oriel Gooding). Ubiquitous family friend artist Konrad (Gerald Kyd) is brought onside through discussion of squashed aphids for the greater good of pigment and a drink-fuelled ravage of his masterpiece The Struggle (not, as it is painstakingly pointed out, My Struggle / Mein Kampf which is possibly lost somewhat in translation from German).

But the neo-Nazi infiltration fails to envelop warring couple Bettina and Albert.

Bettina (believably underplayed by Kirsty Besterman) is stressed. No one knows how long her irritating, play-the-martyr mother is staying or what she broke or why she professes her new expensive dress is second-hand. There’s no food bought for Christmas Day, the tree needs decorating, Konrad has professed undying love and her husband is being odd.

Author Albert (Felix Hayes who keeps giving with the gift of a part) is more than stressed. His wife wants him to have words with mother-in-law, he’s allergic to Christmas trees and he’s stood on glass. New and oh so young mistress Naomi is not impressed with his gift, and, with aches and pains aplenty, he self-medicates to ease the pain, strain and burgeoning rash.

A rainbow of tablets washed down with good red wine culminates in a hallucinatory choice of endings where Rudolph is outed as the doctor of Auschwitz and thrown out, only to return to vomit anti-Semitic venom or that the doctor tends to Albert’s seizure and a cosy peace descends around the pretentious, candle-lit tree—although an unread letter lurks as a ticking time bomb.

Not exactly the premise of razor-sharp comedy but, when set in Lizzie Clachan’s rehearsal room, with office chairs on wheels (facilitating swift regroupings), utilitarian tables piled with scripts, fruit and junk (as inappropriate props and effects—highlighter pen spectacles, junk Christmas tree, water jug doorbell etc) and with spoken stage direction and narrative, there is a whole new dimension adding movement, depth and much fun.

Perhaps one of the few times ‘enjoyable’, ‘laugh out loud’ and ‘far-Right infiltration’ belong together in a sentence.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell