Who’d have thought a satire on the appeal of Far-Right ideology would not only work but be so funny? Not only is Winter Solstice at Orange Tree Theatre genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious but it’s so damn prescient, it chills you to the bone.
In the play, Roland Schimmelpfennig takes the familiar premise of ‘a stranger comes to town’ and uses it to examine the lure and seduction of extreme right-wing values on everyday people. When he wrote the play in 2014, perhaps Roland meant it as a warning, but, well, now it feels like a judgment on the liberal chattering classes for their complacency and cavalier mocking and disregard of the swelling support for these parties and their policies.
It’s Christmas Eve and a middle-class family in a well-to-do home is preparing for the festive celebrations. Parents Albert (Dominic Rowan) and Bettina (Laura Rogers) are trying to get their little girl into bed whilst bickering over who should be lumbered with creating small-talk with Bettina’s eccentric mother, Corinna (Kate Fahy).
Only the usual course of events is turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of Rudolph (Nicholas Le Prevost), a stranger who Bettina got chatting to on the train journey over, and who she invited to stay when he was unable to complete his journey due to heavy snowfall.
And as much as you would like to think Rudolph is a charming, harmless old man that a lonely Corinna took a shine to, Albert realises that this is far from the case. And if the fact that Rudolph saying he’s being staying in Paraguay doesn’t give the game away, some of the questionable and oddly alarming things he says will.
Of course, the problem with the description above is that it sounds like a dark drama. And this isn’t. Oh my god, it isn’t. For Winter Solstice is supremely witty. The jokes keep coming and they barely stop through the 1h 45min running time.
A lot of this comes from the smart writing from Roland Schimmelpfenning. Written in a style that is part-play, part-novel, droll dialogue mixes it up with spoken narrative descriptions, such as ‘she laughed nervously’ and ‘it was snowing outside’, which are then dramatised by the actors. Which when mixed with the excellent performances from the whole cast, gives plenty of opportunity to create a laugh.
But for all the humour, this play is a reminder that fascism doesn’t start with gas chambers, but with words that connect. For Rudolph’s persuasive opinions on ‘order from chaos’, the veneration of mothers, and the role of art, start to win over the hearts and minds of this family and their friends.
And all of this is so damn relevant that, really, it’s damn scary. When Roland Schimmelpfennig wrote this in 2014 there’s no way he could have foreseen the events of 2016. The attraction of right-wing beliefs has always been a difficult and tricky subject for Germans and Germany, but look at where we are in the world today? And Orange Tree’s Artistic Director Paul Miller confirmed this UK premiere of Winter Solstice way before Trump’s victory.
Yet here we are.
The signs have been there for a while, true, and even had the EU referendum result gone the other way and Hillary had scraped over the line in November, the themes in this play would have remained desperately urgent. But now – now – when extreme right-wing ideology has its hands on the reins of power, well, how more prophetic can a play be?
Because though this play is extremely funny (genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious) its humour is the horror. For whilst we’re laughing at Rudolph’s clichés and Daily Mail-esque views, we know that, in reality, others listen to this stuff and hear something that resonates.
There’s not a single weak element to this show. A joint production with the Actors Touring Company, there is terrific ingenuity in the direction from Ramin Gray. A deceptively simple set-up – the five principals sat around four trestle tables scattered with random utensils, empty coffee cups, marker pens and fruit – yet sharp choreography and movement bring this play vividly to life.
There is a superb production. I feel I say this every time with the Orange Tree Theatre these days, though. Seriously, there’s something in the water over there, I swear.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to February 11, 2017
All production images by Stephen Cummiskey.