Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Opened 7 October, 2004

In some respects, Midwinter could have been written by Howard Barker. There is the Barkerian sense of external darkness and extremity, of people trying to find their way through the huge cruelties of the world as best they can and inevitably failing. But where Barker would articulate these things explicitly, having his characters debate social and philosophical moralities at length, Zinnie Harris simply lets them get on with their attenuated, desperate lives in the debris-strewn aftermath of an undefined but long-running war.

In a starving city, Maud "buys" a mute little boy from an old man, assuring the boy food if he takes the place of her own dead son. Suddenly, though, the war is over; as life slowly, gropingly begins to recover and Maud not unkindly assumes the boy's upbringing, her husband returns not dead as she had long ago been told, the ring she had been wearing as a relic that of another man sent her in error. She assures him that the boy is indeed the son he had never seen. The old man, though, will not leave them alone, and uncovers another switched identity. The soldier husband, meanwhile, proves unable to leave the war behind, either mentally or physically as he is eaten away by a bodily parasite.

Harris's language is sparse and simple, and she portrays events with an unblinking horror both as writer and director in this too-brief run in the RSC's New Work Festival. But there is a flinty poetry underlying the 90-minute piece. The title refers to a cold, hard season, of course, but most of the direct references are specifically to the midwinter sun: a sun which we recognise as small, shrivelled, throwing a slanting light that forces one to squint rather than look head-on at things. Maud and husband Grenville, like everyone else in their world, have so little of either material or metaphysical value that they invest all their emotions in labels: your ring, our son.

The central trio of Ruth Gemmell, Pal Aron and the venerable John Normington are all faultless in exposing their characters' raw nerve endings. Gemmell in particular has a number of electrifying moments, such as Maud's unsuccessful-throwaway description of the loss of her son. Later, when Grenville remarks on her "cold kiss" and Maud turns away to let the truth flit across her face, I felt thrillingly privileged to be one of the few in the audience that could see Gemmell's brief but piercing passage of anguish.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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