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London Theater Review: Timely Satire ‘Winter Solstice’

Variety logo Variety 1/19/2017 Matt Trueman
© Provided by Variety

Fascism doesn’t kick the door down on arrival. It waits for an invite, then makes itself at home. A response to the rise of the far-right in Europe – or, more accurately, its re-rise – but equally applicable to America’s alt-right, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s postmodern play “Winter Solstice” becomes a chilling warning as to what happens when fascism gains a foothold. When old-school Rudolph Mayer turns up for dinner, he gradually wins over his polite, liberal hosts and, in the process, turns back the clock.

Schimmelpfennig’s play is a slippery thing, a comedy of manners that slowly turns cold. Set on Christmas Eve in a typically bourgeois family household, “Winter Solstice” riffs on the classic uninvited guest drama. Husband and wife Albert and Bettina are bickering away — his mother-in-law’s proving a pain, their daughter’s getting underfoot — when the doorbell rings. Standing on the front step is Rudolph (Nicholas Le Provost), a soft-spoken, upright chap who gives “the slight impression of coming from another time.”

For all his old-school civility, Rudolph raises eyebows. His trim short-back-and-sides is a touch militaristic, he’s just back from Paraguay and he talks — metaphorically, you understand — of pure blood and world order. It’s so knowing, clumsy even, that it’s plain comic. Pointing up at a painting, Le Provost leaves his arm hanging in a “Seig Heil” gesture. Yet, if Albert (Dominic Rowan) is increasingly uncomfortable, he’s too polite to say anything. The man’s a guest, after all, but then again, even guests can take over.

That Rudolph does so is a measure not only of fascism’s alluring power, but also of how ill-equipped liberalism is to counter it. Albert bottles it. He either stews in silence, or else smiles politely, and, by the time he musters the mettle to object, it’s too late. Rudolph’s purring certainty has won the room. Preaching old-fashioned values and classical ideals, and promising a better tomorrow, he appeals to the nostalgic, the impressionable and the optimistic. No need, even, for recourse to xenophobia or fear. Both actors relish their roles: Le Provost is silkily smooth; Rowan blusters beautifully, like a churlish schoolkid, and it makes his final silence all the more alarming.

Schimmelpfennig mixes dialogue with narration so that his actors trip in and out of character. Objective fact blurs with subjective perspective until fantasy becomes entangled with reality. Time flicks back and forth, so memory merges into actuality and the past blends in with the present. It leaves us, much like Albert, dizzily confused; unsure how to rebut Rudolph’s position, let alone how it won out.

Super self-aware, the play’s as much about art as anything else. Albert’s a popular historian. He’s literally written the book on Nazism several times over, and his wife, Bettina, is an experimental filmmaker. Their old friend Conrad painted the abstract on their wall. They should be inoculated against Nazism, and yet they fall foul. Rudolph, meanwhile, muses on music: Chopin, Bach and (uh-oh) Wagner. He believes in art for building a better world.

In the end, art has no more argument than Albert. Schimmelpfennig folds in a load of echoes: Max Frisch’s “Firebugs,” Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” and Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” are all in there somewhere. He knows we’ve seen Nazism on stage and on screen, and yet still it recurs, unrecognized at first, unrebuffed before too late. In a sense, art eases its path. It lets us believe we’ve got the measure of it, that we’ve pinned it down and protected ourselves against it, only for it to show up and settle in unchallenged. By treating fascism as an abstract, Schimmelpfennig suggests that we open ourselves up to the reality.

This is what symbols do, after all. They shift and mutate, double-back and distort. It’s telling that art impacts on the family’s behavior. Albert’s mother-in-law, for example, “smiles a smile she saw in the cinema.” It implies a feedback loop — art shapes the world shapes art again — until the fascism we see in stories bears no resemblance to the reality.

This is where director Ramin Gray and designer Lizzie Clachan’s rehearsal room staging is so sharp. Sat around trestle tables, as if at a table read, his cast apparently improvise their way through, using felt tip pens as cigarettes and water as wine. They build a Christmas tree out of bits and pieces: a pencil case, a brick, two tubs of snacks. In other words, nothing’s what it seems, but we know how to read it.

The thing about symbols, though, is that they depend on consensus, or else they open up to interpretation and corruption. By the time Rudolph holds up a tube of tablets as a paintbrush and calls it a torch, he has, essentially, grabbed the steering wheel of symbolism for his own ends. He exploits relativity to return the production to realism, bringing in a real Christmas tree with real candles, serving real wine in real glasses. It’s the ultimate act of literalism and a theatrical rewind that shows just how easy it is to bring the past back to life.

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