On the day America installs its most controversial and outspoken president the stage hits back with an alt-right resurgence drama that chills with its prescience.
Three years ago, seeing the way the wind was blowing, German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, came up with Winter Solstice, an outwardly simple story about “the uninvited guest” who brings more than a bottle of plonk and bonhomie to the table.
Now translated by David Tushingham for a quite brilliant piece of abstract theatre from Ramin Gray of the Actors Touring Company and Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, Winter Solstice makes compelling viewing.
It opened on Wednesday at Orange Tree and, superficially, it resembles an Alan Ayckbourn domestic comedy about warring couples at Christmas-time.
But behind the back-biting, bitching and black comedy lies a political message that is impossible to ignore.
Gray’s adventurous staging includes a Blue Peter, Jenga-style, Christmas tree, as precarious in its construction as the faux courtesy clever, middle class couple Albert and Bettina, show their surprise visitor.
At one point it sits centre stage amid designer Lizzie Caplen’s deliberately shambolic set which resembles a rehearsal space, with four tables, office chairs and crap strewn about. There are discarded scripts, marker pens, glasses, jugs of water, empty coffee cups, all used as props by the cast.
They mostly sit throughout the 110 minute drama, occasionally wheeling themselves about, moving the tables, occasionally making space for a particular scene. There are moments of tension, an explosion of tempers, and an increasing air of menace as the cast of five not only say their lines but also their stage directions.
And, while there were a few forgotten lines at last night’s show, it didn’t spoil the performance, thanks largely to Dominic Rowan’s engrossing turn as pill-popping, stressed out intellectual writer Albert.
Albert, whose new book is called Christmas in Auschwitz, opens the batting by berating his wife, Bettina (Laura Rogers), a maker of niche and unwatchable arthouse films, for failing to meet her mother, Corinna, who has arrived for the Yuletide.
He’s fed up having to entertain his mother-in-law because of Bettina’s frosty relationship with her. It is a typically fraught family scenario that is suddenly made more so by the arrival of a stranger.
Kate Fahy’s fragile Corinna had met Rudolph (Nicholas Le Prevost) on the train and had recklessly invited him to drop by. Albert and Bettina are astonished at the intrusion.
He seems a charming, polite and decent elderly gentleman but something about him gets Albert’s hackles up.
“There is something not right about this man,” warns Albert. As tensions rise the stressed out Albert pops pills like Tic Tacs (oh, hang on, they are Tic Tacs), fends off his young lover, grapples to control the dynamic in the room and keep the peace.
But there’s a growing sense of unease about what Rudolph (a doctor from Paraguay) has to say. He throws out phrases like “world order,” and the need for “purity”. It doesn’t take much to realise that the old boy’s shady past is threatening to resurface at a time when Germany’s white middle class families feel under threat.
Rowan is eminently watchable as he tries to warn everyone about the visitor. “He’s not mad! He’s dangerous!!” He delivers darkly humorous dialogue almost in the same breath as a growing rage and fear.
Milo Twomey is underused as visiting artist, and Albert’s longtime friend, Konrad, although he does have the lion’s share the direction to speak.
Nicholas Le Prevost makes an admirable and benign Rudolph. It is impossible to think of the actor as anything other than upright and decent so he’s perfect as this wolf in lamb’s clothing.
It is frightening how persuasive Rudolph can be with nothing more than charm, flattery and an ability to manipulate the family’s most insecure members.
Ambitious, experimental and original. A superb and gripping drama from Gray.
Running at the Orange Tree Theatre until February 11.
Roland Schimmelpfennig’s chillingly prescient Winter Solstice packs a political punch on the day the US welcomes a new order to the White House.