Winter’s Discontent written and performed by William Zappa, with Andrea Close, at The Street Theatre, June 18 – July 3, 2010, 7.30pm.
Reviewed June 18 by Frank McKone
A mathematician asked me would this play be “theatre for theatricals”?
When the line “An actor prepares” was made prominent without any mention of Stanislavsky, I might have thought “yes” in response to my mathematical friend except that to see Winter’s Discontent as being limited to those with theatrical know-how would be to miss the point and misrepresent the play.
It is about an actor – Robert Winter – preparing (to play the role of Thénardier, the inn-keeper in Les Miserables, for which Zappa has won awards), but it could as easily be about a mathematician for whom working out a proof which has baffled others is as necessary to his or her sense of self as acting is for a serious performer. In each case there is technique, commitment, stress in the face of failure, wonder and beauty in success. This is art, essential to human life.
Winter’s Discontent works at several different levels.
It is a technical display of Zappa’s acting skills which in themselves are fascinating to watch. Seeing and hearing his fine control of voice, movement and facial expression can be compared with being at a Richard Tognetti concert. For the theatrically savvy, technique may be enough to satisfy. But for the wider audience there is more to come.
It is a carefully crafted script, in which a small seemingly insignificant mystery (an airmail letter) grows into a point of emotional climax in Robert Winter’s life, which he has to resolve when the “beginner’s call” takes him out of his dressing room as “the House is open and the stage is live”. The backstage language is opened up for a non-technical audience to understand, because it is used in the context of Winter’s experience. The dramatic structure is conventional, engaging the audience in an empathetic concern for the character. Will he be able to face his audience while carrying the weight of feeling that he has failed his own son?
At this level, some may feel the play is too contrived, but there is still more. William Zappa really is an actor. It is hard not to imagine that he has had to face up to something like the horrifying experience that he has written for his character, Robert Winter. Indeed, in his acknowledgements, he offers “special thanks to Asha Zappa for inspiring, and putting up with an absentee father”. This is the very fault that Robert Winter – an actor always away from home – believes is the cause of his son’s suicide. Is it not possible that Zappa’s play has had to “go on” despite something awful happening off stage?
Now this play and this performance becomes a matter of extraordinary bravery. And now it opens up for any kind of audience our feelings about things that so often must be done – for duty’s sake, for financial survival, for the sake of someone else’s mental or physical survival, for an ideal, indeed even for art’s sake – even though one’s circumstances seem to make “going on” impossible.
I can only conclude by encouraging mathematicians and anyone else with a human heart to experience Winter’s Discontent.