Thursday, March 29, 2012

Midsummer (a play with songs) by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre

Midsummer (a play with songs) by David Greig (writer/director) and Gordon McIntyre (songwriter).  Traverse Theatre Company, Edinburgh, at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, March 28-31, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 28

What an interesting play!  It’s like pass the parcel: surprise after surprise at the unwrapping of each new layer, right until the very centre at the end.  Surely it’s a rom-trag?  But no – the last revelation is still to come.  Rom-com after all.

The play, its original structure, sparkling design and presentation by actors Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, proves the truth of the announcement by the supposed (or is it real in Scotland?) parking ticket payment machine: CHANGE IS POSSIBLE.

The storyline, after all, is no different than Shakespeare’s tale of Beatrice and Benedick or Shaw’s of Bluntschli and Raina.  An unlikely couple meet in highly unprepossessing circumstances and find that love happens regardless of what they think they feel.  For Shakespeare it was all much ado about nothing – except that it was really about the nature of proper governance of the nation.  For Shaw it was really about the taking up of arms between nations.  For David Greig it is about the human disaster of modern urban consumer society.  Com though it might be for the characters as they “dance ere we are married’, give her hand “to my chocolate cream soldier” or board the ferry for Belgium, the fun of realising that love conquers all cannot completely hide the trag behind

My lord, your brother John is ta’en in flight / And brought with armed men back to Messina, or

Time’s up, Major.  You’ve managed those regiments so well that youre sure to be asked to get rid of some of the Infantry of the Teemok division, and

the need for Bob, at the age of 35, to have had to depend on being a criminal’s courier to survive in modern Edinburgh, the pointless lives of the youthful ‘Goths’, the irresponsibility of ‘nightlife’, and the sadness of Helena’s desire for a child and fear that at 35 she may be too late.  Using Bob’s ill-gotten gains to flee to Europe for a few weeks’ fun may not be all that it promises on the Monday after this midsummer’s wild weekend.  We can only hope that the parking machine is right, and change is possible after all.

So, if the plot is traditional, what makes this play original?  The answer is the same as it was for Much Ado About Nothing and Arms and the Man.  It’s in the language and the relationship set up between the characters and the audience.  Change in writing for theatre is possible.  It was Shakespeare who used the soliloquy as a device for a character to speak directly to the audience, it was Shaw who put the bluntness of Bluntschli on stage, and in the last century Brecht who had characters sing songs as singers rather than as the characters they otherwise were playing, while Tennessee Williams wrote characters who separately observed and commented on the action. 

Greig has taken this tradition a step beyond.  Bob and Helena switch moment by moment from being their own character to describing what the other was or is doing or playing out other characters in the other character’s life.  The play constantly shifts the ground beneath us, which is often funny even as it can make us feel insecure.

This is a new style of theatre suited to today’s 24/7 culture, but does not fall into the common trap of using technology just because it is there.  In fact the clever design, by Georgia McGuiness, uses perfectly old-fashioned visual and audio techniques, while the one more modern device which does the trick for the play is the simple continuous roll-along brightly-lit message from the ticket machine.  Change is possible, indeed, but is most effective when introduced sparingly and only to make a specific point.  The script is about a wildly out-of-control weekend, but is tightly written, giving the actors every opportunity to make the most of every minute.  As they do.

As always, discipline and being true to the right style is what makes theatre work.  It certainly does in Midsummer.

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