Christmas has always been a time of rich pickings for dramatists, bringing together people who probably avoid each other for the rest of the year – well, until recently anyway when Covid has imposed its own strictures. Alan Ayckbourn once wrote: “You’re always looking for a reason to stick a group of people together who can’t stand each other, aren’t you? Dinner parties are good, but what better time than Christmas? You’ve got three days together and there’s always bound to be at least a cousin no one can stand”. It’s generally accepted that Ayckbourn is our most performed contemporary playwright and a similar label can be attached in Germany to Roland Schimmelpfennig even if his works are little known over here. Winter Solstice is his own “festive” play set on Christmas Eve and concerns a family gathering that nobody really seems to want.
Arty intellectual couple Albert and Bettina – he works in publishing, she’s a film maker – are at odds right from the start. The source of tension is the annual invite to Corinna, Bettina’s mother, who seems set to stay for longer than usual and arrives flustered and freezing after her train has ground to a halt in the midst of heavy snow. Worse, she has in tow a complete stranger with whom she had fallen into conversation en route and who now invades an already fraught set up. He’s called Rudolph although that’s the only directly Christmassy thing about him. He’s very keen to share his thoughts on Art (definitely with a capital letter) and those who create it. There are increasingly heavy hints about the nature of the stranger’s background, and we discover he likes Mozart and Wagner but doesn’t care for Mendelssohn or Mahler, indeed he thinks there are no Jewish composers of note. We also learn he has been living in Paraguay for quite some time and is of an age to remember seismic events from Germany’s past; so, several tiles seem to be slotting neatly into place and where it’s all going seems a little obvious.
However, Schimmelpfennig is cleverer than this and a lot is left to the audience’s discretion. When there is a direct and shocking moment of snarling hatred which issues from Rudolph, it’s entirely unclear whether this actually happens or it’s a product of Albert’s imagination/paranoia fuelled by a combination of medication and copious amounts of alcohol. The writer is examining his country’s ongoing relationship with fascism and asking a fundamental question about the failure of the intellectual classes to deal with its re-emergence. Albert and Bettina effectively sit on their hands and do nothing even while they simultaneously claim that they are appalled. If Rudolph does subscribe to right wing ideology then he’s a charming, smiling and even reasonable example of it and, therefore, even more deadly than the caricatured version which has been inherited from history.
David Haig is excellent as Rudolph, exuding urbanity even as he gleefully coerces everyone else into imitating musical instruments in an extended and manic section where it becomes clear who is pulling the strings at this gathering. Susan Brown as Corinna (or is it Gudrun?) demonstrates susceptibility to flattery and is winsomely all a flutter anytime he opens his mouth. Sam Troughton and Clare Corbett spar convincingly as the central couple. They are both pursuing extra marital affairs and the only surprise is that they have remained together. That’s probably for the sake of Marie their young daughter (at least that’s what they would be telling themselves). She is not given a direct voice or even listed in the cast of characters; tellingly, she is effectively all but invisible as she plays with her toy horse – actually a toothbrush on a piece of string!
Any dialogue she does have is handed to The Voice (Sinead MacInnes) who also acts as a narrator and commentator throughout. This being an audio play, I at first assumed that this device was being used to inform the listener of the physical surroundings and how the characters look but it is taken much further – indeed much much further. The dialogue is constantly interrupted (sometimes mid-sentence) to tell us the characters’ thought processes and their reactions, even to quote the dialogue instead of the actors delivering it themselves. Any prop that is part of the action is delineated and even the piano pieces which Rudolph plays are itemised pedantically down to the Mozart K numbers. As an alienating tactic it just might work in a physically realised production but here it gets very wearing pretty quickly. It drains the momentum of the whole piece and for me spoiled what was otherwise an interesting play.
I’d like to see how this would play out on stage because I can’t quite envisage it, especially if things have to keep stopping and starting. I’d also like to understand the rationale behind Schimmelpfennig’s decision to write the play in the way he has and whether other examples of his work follow a similar course. Perhaps I’ll make it a project for 2022; meanwhile can I wish you and yours a very happy Christmas and thanks for the continued support.