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Wintersonnenwende: No solace on solstice

We all know the typical family dramas that come with the Christmas season, but prolific playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig's newest piece, following a theme of “empty heaven”, packs some surprises. On at Deutsches Theater Dec 20 and 26.

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Photo by Arno Declair

Wintersonnenwende (Winter Solstice) is a bit by the numbers, yes: the strain of family holidays, mother-daughter conflict, a husband and wife sniping at each other, affairs, mixing pills with alcohol, a mysterious stranger. Some things are just what they seem. Says a visiting friend, an artist, “A paintbrush is just a paintbrush.” But nothing is what it seems. Of course.

The set-up sounds enough like a family ‘living room’ drama. A mother, Corinna, visits her daughter Bettina and her husband Albert for Christmas and brings a man she met on the train on the way there. But that’s where the similarities end: the only set piece in the creative-class Prenzlauer Berg living room is a hollow table. There’s also the suggestion of a painting, though it exists mostly in pantomime, as does the couple’s young daughter. This emptiness of these characters’ lives… it’s all a bit on the nose. The theme of the Deutsches Theater’s season is “the empty heaven”, and Wintersonnenwende fits the bill, a full-house Christmas play with no food in the house to celebrate the winter solstice (Albert and Bettina weren’t expecting company).

The play’s snappy, often-funny dialogue carries what could be leaden metaphors forward: Albert’s latest self-serious book title, Christmas at Auschwitz, prompted a lone guffaw from this quarter. The emotional moments between the characters are finely tuned – especially the flirtation between the mother, Corinna, and the stranger from the train, and Bettina and Albert’s reactions to their romance as the night unfolds. The characters speak their stage directions and subtext, and so once this rule is established, playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig gets to play with it to great effect. The characters count down the time of night, in some of the most theatrical moments of the evening: “10:51,” they announce, frozen mid-argument in tense silence. A beat later: “10:55”.

The whole play feels like a run-up to some kind of startling conclusion. And the mysterious stranger? He does start to deliver some troubling monologues about “world order”. A discussion of keeping aphids out of his garden turns into a diatribe about “contaminating mixing”. He is from Paraguay. But maybe it’s all Albert’s paranoid imagination: between the blue pills, the white pills, the green pills and red wine, he’s a bit lost. Merry Christmas!

WINTERSONNENWENDE Dec 20, 26 19:00 | Deutsches Theater, Schumannstr. 13, Mitte, S-Bhf Friedrichstr.