Available on BBC Sounds
The holidays have 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 filmmaker – 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 setup.
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.
‘I would like to see how this audio drama would play out onstage: @JohnChapman398 listens in to Roland Schimmelpfennig’s #WinterSolstice, featuring an ‘excellent’ David Haig, on @BBCSounds. #onlinereviews