“Can I come in?”

The dramatic trope of the ‘Third Man’ is well established in theatre; from Harold Pinter’s Davies in The Caretaker to J.B Priestley’s Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls, the ‘uninvited stranger’ inevitably spells disaster for everyone. The same can be said for the characters in Winter Solstice, whose evening is interrupted by four loud knocks from the mysterious Rudolph (Nicholas Le Prevost).

It’s Christmas Eve, and Betina (Laura Rogers) and Albert (Dominic Rowan) are already stressed: Betina’s mother (Kate Fahy) has turned up, and she is already causing arguments. If that’s not bad enough, she has also invited a man she met on the train for drinks. Rudolph appears at the door; tentative, polite, uninvited. But harmless. As the evening progresses, so too does Albert’s sense of unease, and we get the impression that they have met before. As Rudolph charms his hosts with witty anecdotes and insightful artistic critique, the knot in Albert’s stomach continues to tighten.

Staged by the Actors Touring Company in collaboration with the Orange Tree Theatre and the Goethe – Institut London, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play is as much about family as Waiting for Godot is about waiting for a man called Godot. At the heart of this play, Schimmelpfennig, and by extension Le Prevost, brilliantly characterise a man who at the surface appears totally amicable, but who embodies a far more dangerous and inextinguishable ideology. One which we may find can all too easily walk through the door. Again.

Director Ramin Gray along with designer Lizzie Calachan leave much to the imagination – in the best way. The set appears at first to be the scene of a messy post-luncheon script readthrough; trestle tables laden with sweet wrappers, water jugs, tangerines, a brick and of course scripts. And the actors initially treat it as such; quietly entering the space and taking their respective seats around the table. As compliment to this outwardly hostile set, Schimmelpfennig’s dramatic style takes a while to warm to my British ears. The characters not only speak their lines, but vocalise the other characters’ thoughts, and describe the situation around them. A little like a read through, then, where the stage directions are read aloud. I got the impression we were listening to a film pitch.

But after a while, after I got the hang of the style, I began to understand the importance of this dramatic decision. We, as the audience, are left to make our own impressions of the characters and their surroundings. We bear the burden of responsibility. Calachan’s set wonderfully permits this relationship with the audience.

The Verfremdungseffekt (estrangement effect) of both the set and the characters’ language keeps us on the straight and narrow. The play doesn’t get bogged down with the subtextual drama of this fictional family. We laugh when they want us to laugh, but we also think when they want us to think. The actors also embrace the freedom this form allows. At one point Fahy blows her nose, which is a totally normal thing to do. How liberating!

Gray and his team have given this profoundly European text life, and a place in the London theatre scene. The actors’ commitment to the show shines, and their considered use of imagery and dynamism on stage (particularly at the end) bridges what could be an inaccessible text.

With that in mind, there lies a risk that this production may still be out of reach. The characters are middle-class, with middle-class problems and a middle-class house (before now I had never heard of an ‘occasional table’). The play comments on the passivity of the liberal class, embodied brilliantly by Rowan, but does nothing to resist such an accusation. After all, if the main message here warns us of the perilous temptation of populism, especially during this moment in time when the West is about to witness not one but two consequences of populist dogma, it should resist such ideas. Instead it stops short at merely reflecting, with a brief cry of defiance that quickly fades. And we are left with the lasting image of Rudolph. Perhaps that is our fate. Perhaps we will never be rid of Rudolph.

An accomplished UK premiere with a stellar cast who skilfully negotiate Schimmelpfennig’s complex and timely landscape.

Winter Solstice is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until February 11.

Photo: Tristram Kenton