Less than a month after Zinnie Harris's Midwinter came to London, its "prequel" Solstice is unveiled in Stratford as part of the RSC's following New Work season. Solstice is envisaged as the first part of a trilogy together with Midwinter and the as yet uncompleted Fall. The common theme seems to be the effect of war and its concomitant extreme situations on humanity – broadly similar to that of the week's other new writing première, debbie tucker green's stoning mary.
Where Green zeroes in on linguistic tics as a battleground in themselves, Harris is more discreetly aware of the role played by words in a climate of conflict: as her unidentified city slides towards sectarian civil war, one of its inhabitants laments, "The old terms are back." Religion is the focal point of the culture in the play, and when a rhetoric of aggression successfully acquires the authority of "a new theology", matters deteriorate to the point where one adherent to "the faith of the Peacemaker" can kill another (though not without anguish) for deserting that path. Commerce, too, plays its part, trampling on the minority community in order to exploit the resources of their territory.
Harris's own production, on a simple Tom Piper set, lets the thoughts and emotions do the talking; Peter Bygott (ironic name!) stands out as troubled father Michel, who finds his world no longer has a place for consciences such as his. This is a less spare, less flintily elegant work than Midwinter; it still feels as if it could be the world of a Howard Barker play, but it is inhabited by folk with whom one can more naturally empathise. Although the setting feels more Balkan than anything else, the play contains a wealth of issues and perspectives, and sounds echoes of events from Omagh to Omarska, Israel to Iraq. Indeed, there's simply too much here, together with the unsubtle emblems of a mother being slowly killed by a tumour in her gut and the murder and mutilation of a bride as the beginning of the slide towards communal damnation. Though undoubtedly sensitive and intelligent, the play may gain from the context of the completed trilogy; on its own, it feels as if it's over-reaching somewhat.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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