The Actors Touring Company Production of Winter Solstice

Roland Schimmelpfenning’s play Winter Solstice, in the Actors Touring Company production seen at Scarborough, is an outstanding new play. Let me start with the content. A bickering couple, he a sociologist, she a filmmaker, are visited by her mother and an artist friend. The inconsequential dialogue of the group reveals the emptiness and pointlessness of their lives. A third visitor, a stranger whom the mother had met on a train, provides an antidote. On the piano he plays for them Chopin and Bach and he discourses on beauty and order. With the exception of the depressive and cynical sociologist, they are attracted by his charm and lured into an enthusiasm for his ideals. And the same applies to us, the theatre audience. That there might be something problematic in his rhetoric only gradually emerges, when for example he says that there were no reputable Jewish composers; and when later he refers to a class of superior beings and a future of a “thousand years”.

As a powerful but subtle exposition of the seductiveness of fascist-speak, here in a homely context, this is highly effective. It is enhanced by a dramatic technique which is original and arresting. The piece is not presented realistically. It is half-narrated, half-acted by the performers seated around tables littered with a disorderly array of domestic items (mainly of consumption). These are improvisedly used by the actors to represent objects referred to in the text. The approach has a Brechtian “alienation” effect. The fact that the audience knows that they are experiencing theatre rather than pretence-reality draws them into a more intensive appreciation of the play’s themes. Then when, at the end, a real Christmas tree is brought onto the stage with real candle lights, this has a shattering impact: what is perceived through illusion and dramatic fantasy CAN all too easily happen in our real world.

The excellent production by Ramin Gray, was originally given at the Orange Tree Theatre; its touring revival was directed by Alice Malin. The cast of Felix Hayes, Kirsty Besterman, David Beames, Marian McLoughlin and Gerald Kyd, adept at the transition from narration to performance, offered wholly convincingĀ  accounts of the play’s protagonists.