Left – Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon. Cover – Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti
Midsummer (a play with songs) is an utterly, utterly gorgeous piece of theatre. It is riotous and chaotic and hilarious and tragic and messy and beautiful (and yes, it has songs). Whatever technical nitpicks I might have about this show (and there are not many), I want this to be absolutely clear: I loved Midsummer. I adored it. And I recommend it unreservedly.
Midsummer is Sydney Theatre Company’s international import for 2012 – a role that has been filled in previous years by the critically acclaimed Terminus and August: Osage County. It hails from the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, and in many ways, it is a love song to that city. There is a map of Edinburgh in the program, but not the tourist map. This is not the Edinburgh of Edinburgh Castle, but the Edinburgh of the bus shelter that smells like urine outside the castle – an Edinburgh of wine bars where lawyers go and seedy clubs where Japanese bondage artists give demonstrations and carparks with machines that tell you ‘change is possible’. Like Sydney in Griffin’s This Year’s Ashes, Edinburgh becomes almost a character in this play, a beloved friend. I don’t know Edinburgh at all, but if and when I go, I think this play will make it seem a little more familiar.
This show is the story of Bob (Matthew Pidgeon), a small-time crook, and Helena (Cora Bissett), a lawyer. They meet by chance, share a decidedly ordinary (if not downright dreadful) one night stand, and agree never to see each other again – until a chance meeting leads them to a lost weekend together in Edinburgh. Both Bob and Helena have their own problems – substantial ones – but in the fleeting hours of their weekend, they create a memory that they will never forget, one they will always treasure, a story that they will tell and retell over and over again.
Midsummer is not a classic romantic comedy. There is a point in the script where Helena says she knows she and Bob aren’t meant to be together because they agree too much: she’s watched a lot of romantic comedies and knows that the couple need conflict to survive. She’s dead right about that formula, and about how she and Bob are certainly not the typical rom-com couple. While I am definitely not averse to the romantic comedy genre, I think I like Midsummer better because it bends the rules. But the real joy of the play is not so much in the romance between Helena and Bob, but in telling the story. The play is narrated by the characters as well as played by them, as if they were recounting a memory from the past while simultaneously reliving it. They are both openly unreliable narrators, with different narrative styles – they argue, they contradict each other, they sing, they fudge the details – but for them, telling a story is a joyous experience, even when the story is sad or makes them look bad.
Bissett and Pidgeon are both superb in their roles. Bissett in particular does a phenomenal job, switching between her primary role as Helena to Bob’s thuggish boss Tiny Tam and sullen teenager Aidan. The use of a wall at the front of the set means that sometimes the actors are facing away from the audience, which was a little difficult at times, and the mirrorball in the Japanese bondage scene got a little irritating (though I totally understand its use for creating ambience, it consistently managed to flash into my eyes), but these are very minor nitpicks. Midsummer is wonderful. It reminded me a little of the Irish film Once – and as this is possibly my favourite film in the world, this is high praise.
I defy anyone to come out Midsummer feeling grumpy. It’s not all comedy – there is some genuine tragedy in this play – but it serves to heighten the beauty of laughing. I recommend this play highly to anyone, but particularly to people who like to tell stories. In Midsummer they will find, I think, a kindred spirit.
Sydney Theatre Company, Merrigong Theatre Co and Richard Jordan Productions present the Traverse Theatre Company production of
(a play with songs)
by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre
Venue: Drama Theatre, SOH
Dates: 6 February – 10 March, 2012
Tickets: $45 – $90