Stage Door Review 2022

Solstice d’hiver

Sunday, February 6, 2022


by Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated by Camille Luscher & Claire Stavaux, directed by Joël Beddows

Groupe de la Veillée, Théâtre Prospero & Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto

February 4-12, 2022

Rudolph: “Je veux dire, a-t-on le droit de tuer un être humain? Non! Mais parfois il le faut bien. Parfois il le faut peut-être. Pour servir une cause supérieure.”

The Théâtre français de Toronto’s production of Solstice d’hiver may be the first in-person production of a play to open this year, but it is also a production that would be a must-see in any year. Its theme of the return of the extreme right could not be more relevant to current world events. In particular, in a world where people bandy about terms like “fascism “ and “Nazi” with no full understanding of them, the play chillingly details how ideas we think of as purely evil could once have been so appealing. From an intellectual perspective, the play helps to make clear how these ideas could become so seductive again. From a dramatic point of view, Schimmelpfennig’s techniques offer major  challenges for a director and cast. To see these challenges overcome with such ease as in the TfT production makes one realize anew why live theatre is so exciting.

If Covid had not intervened, Soulpepper would have been the company to present the Canadian premiere of Schimmelpfennig’s 2015 play. It was to have been a co-pro with Necessary Angel scheduled to open May 14, 2020. As it happened Joël Beddows, then Artistic Director of TfT, had been working since 2018 to bring the play to Canadian audiences. The TfT production is a co-pro with Groupe de la Veillée and Théâtre Prospero scheduled to open in Quebec in January. The resurgence of Covid scuttled those plans, leave the TfT the only company free to present it.

Toronto is no stranger to Schimmelpfennig. Solstice d’hiver (Wintersonnenwende in the original German, Winter Solstice in English) is the fifth of his plays to be staged in Toronto since The Arabian Night in 2004. As he treated the topic of racism in Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God (2010), seen in Toronto in 2010 and 2011, so Schimmelpfennig adopts a range of techniques to treat the resurgence of the far right in Solstice d’hiver.

Both plays are set in the present and focus on an upper middle-class couple who consider themselves liberals. Both feature an artifact – a doll in Peggy Pickit, a painting in Solstice d’hiver – that becomes a source of contention. Both are riffs on the favourite subject of modern drama – the dinner party gone wrong – and both present the fear one couple feels that in inviting others into their house they have somehow contaminated themselves. The difference is that in Peggy Pickit the invitees are people who are friends of the host couple, while in Solstice d’hiver the invitee is someone who is a complete stranger.

Solstice d’hiver begins on December 23 with an argument between the successful couple Albert (Benoit Mauffette), an author, and Bettina (Catherine De Léan), a filmmaker, about the very topic of invitations. Though it seems trivial and comic at the time, this argument is crucial to a play that asks how extremist ideas can enter a household that considers itself staunchly liberal. Albert is angry that every year Bettina invites her mother Corinna (Louise Naubert) over for Christmas but never greets her or tries to engage her in conversation. The mother and daughter despise each other and Corinna looks askance at all the books critiquing fascism that Albert has written.

This evening Albert and Bettina have invited over Konrad (Marcelo Arroyo), Albert’s best friend since childhood, who painted the enormous expressionist painting that dominates one large wall of the dining room. (The space is blank allowing us to imagine what the painting looks like.)

Suddenly the doorbell rings and there is a man at the door (although Nick Di Gaetano’s soundtrack has no doorbell and Cédric Delorme-Bouchard’s set has no door). It turns out to be a well-groomed, exceedingly polite older man named Rudolph (Gregory Hlady), who has come to the apartment looking for someone named Gudrun. No one knows of any “Gudrun” until Albert remembers that it is Corinna’s middle name. Rudolph and Corinna met on the train and had a long talk when it was stuck in the snow. She says he was very chivalrous to her. Seeing no other alternative Albert invites him in. From then on, and long after the play’s ending, you will ask yourself if there really was no other alternative.

This invitation is fateful because who Rudolph is and what he really wants are elusive. What is important is that philosophically Rudolph stands for everything that the liberal Albert and Bettina think they oppose. Folk wisdom says of the devil and of vampires that they cannot enter a house of their own volition. They have to be invited to enter. (Faust and Mephistopheles discuss this explicitly in Goethe’s Faust, Part 1.) Initially, Rudolph seems strange but harmless, yet the more he speaks the more he appears to Albert as a “monster”.

What Schimmelpfennig demonstrates so brilliantly is how the superficially innocuous remarks that Rudolph makes can lead to disturbing conclusions. We learn that Rudolph is a doctor and was born in Paraguay, the son of a German émigré. Given that the setting is 2015 and Rudolph, like Corinna, is about 60, Rudolph’s father was present in Germany during World War II. To his hosts this means nothing but an exotic origin. They seem to have forgotten that Paraguay initially supported the Axis Powers and after the war became a haven for Nazis escaping prosecution.

Rudolph says he insists on calling Corinna “Gudrun” because it is an ancient name. Yet “Corinna” is also an ancient name – Greek rather than Germanic – so that Rudolph’s preference would appear to be based on his love of the Gothic over the Classical.

The first time Albert suspects that Rudolph may be more than eccentric is when, after playing Chopin, he wonders aloud that Chopin is Polish when there are so few Polish composers. His statement suggests that lack of composers is a flaw in the Poles as a people. Albert asks what he means by the statement, but Rudolph brushes it off. Later, though, Rudolph wonders why there are no Jewish composers, a point Albert immediately refutes.

As the action progresses, Rudolph’s remarks have ever more unsettling implications. He says, for example, that ancient cultures should be preserved – a notion we hear unquestioningly every day. From someone like Rudolph, however, who keeps calling Corrina “Gudrun”, we have to wonder whether Rudolph refers to all ancient cultures or only one, his own in particular, that should be preserved. We also have to wonder to what lengths he would go to protect it.

In speaking of music, Rudolph says that in an orchestra everyone knows their place. He also says that music, like that of J.S. Bach, reflects the order of the universe and that is why we find it beautiful. This seems like a deep insight to some of Rudolph’s listeners, but we have to question whether the organization of an orchestra really should serve as a model for the organization of society and whether Rudolph’s love of order may not also represent a hatred of freedom.

In a later bone-chilling scene, Rudolph gives each of the others a glass to drink from a bottle he has brought with him. Thinking the worst of him by now, we can easily imagine that the drink is poison that his rhetoric has lulled the others into drinking. The drink is only water, but in a strange way it is also a type of poison. Rudolph says the most important attribute of water is its purity. That may be true but Rudolph goes on to say that that quality is also true of civilizations. Anyone who knows the language of the far right in the past or now should shudder at Rudolph’s emphasis on the importance of purity and how than notion could be misapplied to people and nations.

As Rudolph’s true beliefs become increasingly clear, the question is when someone, especially Albert, who invited Rudolph in, will summon the courage to throw him out. The problem is that all four of Rudolph’s listeners are compromised. We will discount Albert and Bettina’s daughter Marie who is sometimes present but always invisible, though Albert and Bettina put her to bed early to remove her from Rudolph’s influence.

Corinna, played to perfection by Louise Naubert, may be disagreeable to Albert and Bettina but falls immediately under Rudolph’s spell and acts likes she’s a teenager since a handsome man is finally flirting with her again. What Rudolph says seems to elevate her in her own opinion in contrast to what Albert and Bettina say that makes her feel old and worthless. Rudolph’s appeal to the “old times” when people were chivalrous and things were better than they are now appeals to her nostalgia for the past when she was more in control of her life.

Albert, Bettina and Konrad all have their own secrets and may feel they lack the moral authority to speak out against Rudolph. Bettina, well played as a nervous, unhappy woman by Catherine De Léan, has the terrible excuse that Rudolph’s presence so occupies Corinna that she is glad not to have to speak to her.

What happens to Konrad is more frightening. Konrad begins the play as the principal narrator of the action, making us think of him as the only character who has an objective view of the action. Schimmelpfennig, however, pulls the rug from under us. He gradually involves Konrad in the action. Rudolph provides a long analysis of what Konrad’s painting means and concludes that it does not represent the beauty of the cosmic order but rather the mental disorder and sense of inferiority of the man who created it. To our horror, Konrad, who has previously shown some signs of self-effacement, completely concurs with Rudolph’s analysis and from that point on become his most ardent acolyte after Corinna.

Konrad’s painting has been deliberately called “expressionist” and those familiar with art history will know that the Nazis classified all nonrepresentational art and all art that questioned the order of the state as “entartete Kunst” or “degenerate art”. Marcelo Arroyo makes the transition of his character from clearheaded observer to abject subject so gradual some may not notice the terrible thing that has happened to Konrad. When we do notice we feel we’ve lost our one anchor to reality.

Schimmelpfennig sets up Albert as Rudolph’s prime antagonist. We hear more than once of all the books examining fascism that Albert has written and we are not surprised that he should be especially sensitive to the noxious drift of Rudolph’s assertions. Bettina and Corinna call Albert weak and cowardly and the problem is that they are right. He is an intellectual who can’t bring himself to take action.

Rudolph’s speeches physically upset Albert and give him anxiety attacks. Because of this he keeps taking anti-anxiety pills, both from his new and old prescriptions, to the point that physically he can do nothing. He can only hallucinate about the action he should take. He can only deal with the symptoms of his anxiety, not the cause. Benoit Mauffette, physically convulsed whenever Rudolph glides to another proto-fascist subject, makes Albert’s ever-increasing suffering feel so real it is almost painful to watch.

Meanwhile, Gregory Hlady makes a masterfully reptilian Rudolph, beginning as humble and meek but gradually growing in power and intensity the more he recognizes how his power has captivated or incapacitated the others. The play may have a domestic setting but you feel that something horrendous is taking place before your eyes.

Cédric Delorme-Bouchard’s stylish, all-white set only highlights any bit of colour that is placed in it, such as the Christmas tree that the men set up and Bettina decorates. When Rudolph suggests that they should all celebrate the winter solstice instead of Christmas (since it is not yet Christmas), we can’t help but realize how the Christmas tree and its ornaments are a bit of ancient paganism that we have willingly welcomed into our houses even though it has nothing to do with the religious holiday we are supposedly celebrating. Schimmelpfennig chooses Christmas as a perfect example of the cognitive dissonance that few people celebrating the holiday choose to examine.

The pace of the TfT production could be tauter and the use of film interludes projected where Konrad’s painting is located only halts whatever momentum the show achieves. What Joël Beddows has so well achieved is to make the interactions among the five characters so clear. Schimmelpfennig uses his frequent technique of having characters like Albert, Bettina and Konrad narrate their own and others’ actions as well as act their own parts, pause to tell the time and give voice to the invisible Marie. These requirements make enormous demands on the actors but the cast accomplish these transitions of function with aplomb.

I can affirm that I have not seen a play filled with this much food for thought in the past ten years, in fact since Schimmelpfennig’s last play Peggy Pickit in 2010. In The Arsonists (1953), Max Frisch wrote a fable about how ordinal liberal people could invite the enemy into their homes. In Solstice d’hiver Schimmelpfennig writes a fable about how the the same evil could arise again and how the same people could again make the same mistake. Schimmelpfennig tackles head-on the most fundamental questions of our age, questions other writers merely glance at. Theatre-lovers should not miss the chance to see a play so innovative in form, so rich in subject matter and and so well performed. Besides that, you can see it live and in person, immediate and unpausable, as plays should be seen.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Marcelo Arroyo as Konrad, Louise Naubert as Corinna, Gregory Hlady as Rudolph, Catherine De Léan as Bettina and Benoit Mauffette as Albert; Gregory Hlady as Rudolph, Louise Naubert as Corinna, Marcelo Arroyo as Konrad, Catherine De Léan as Bettina and Benoit Mauffette as Albert; Gregory Hlady as Rudolph, Louise Naubert as Corinna, Catherine De Léan as Bettina, Marcelo Arroyo as Konrad and Benoit Mauffette as Albert; Catherine De Léan as Bettina and Benoit Mauffette as Albert. © 2022 Maxyme G. Delisle.

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