In 2007, Once, an indie romantic movie with original soundtrack completed on a shoestring budget and shot almost live on the streets of Dublin, caused a critical sensation, and went on to win the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Audience award, the Dublin International Film Festival’s Audience award, and the Academy Award for Best Original Song. In October 2008, Midsummer (a play with songs), the result of the collaboration between playwright David Greig and singer-songwriter Gordon McIntyre, premiered at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and following a nomination for Best New Play at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, went on to tour in Scotland, Ireland, and Canada. It is now being presented in London at the Soho Theatre.
I am coupling Once and Midsummer not only because they are both romantic stories told partly through songs, but most importantly because, while remaining in many ways different artistic works, they share a fundamental quality: they represent an independent, more sincere alternative to the English rom-com, as hijacked, over the last few years, by Hugh Grant on the floppy-haired, unwittingly dashing male protagonist corner, and Bridget Jones on the supposedly true-to-life, dieting, goofy female protagonist corner. The mainstream English or American (and lately, more often than not, casting combination of the two) rom-com seems to have forgotten how to create new characters, and to have lost all interest in real, rather than handed-down, comedy and romance since, at least, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Once and Midsummer moved the action far from its overexposed traditional scene, London’s most gentrified markets (Notting Hill, Borough) and to, respectively, Dublin and Edinburgh, and they liberated their protagonists from gender-based expectations. Thus, they managed to produce two real, fresh, genuinely moving love stories, without disassembling the genre.
As demanded by the rom-com tradition (explicitly invoked during the evening), Bob and Helena, the protagonists of Midsummer, are superficially different, and belong to separate worlds (yet deep down, you don’t need me to tell you, they are similar). She is a high-flying divorce lawyer, he is a small-time crook who still exudes an aura of eye-liner-wearing, scruffy adolescent. They meet in a bar. She wears ‘an understated but nevertheless elegant black dress’, he is ‘reading a damp paperback copy of Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky - to cheer himself up’. He is involved in a mildly worrying criminal affair, and she is sleeping with a married man. They start talking, they spend the night together, they decide to remain just friends - you can guess where this is going. Yet, in spite of the fact that the genre has its own laws and you cannot help but knowing in advance that these laws will eventually take control, and in spite of the occasional eyebrow-raising episode with deus-ex-machina solutions, the plot breezes through the evening, shining with clear, unexpected light - not unlike, in fact, summer in Edinburgh.
The relationship between Helena and Bob is natural and spontaneous, without the necessity for power-struggles or staged misunderstandings. They seem to know that it is not strictly necessary to have a tearful fight and wander the streets with their hands deep in their pockets before they can simply enjoy each other’s company. They seem to know, as well, that this is what most real people are usually like in a romantic relationship: neither entirely confined within their gender, nor trying too hard to be wholly estranged from it.
Greig’s dialogue, part of which is third-person narrative, is full of grace and of lighthearted philosophical puns, and while it includes some less-than-happy moments (particularly, an apologia for jogging that cannot help but sound like the ad for an expensive pair of trainers), it picks itself up quickly and proceeds with gusto, following Bob and Helena through a memorable weekend of Japanese rope bondage, lobster dinners and weed, and involving the audience in a deliciously geeky conference that takes place inside Bob’s head (‘The 30th Annual Conference of Bobs’): ‘Disappointment will become our default position’. The songs are there to highlight and accompany the atmosphere, without needing to create it from scratch, and they are pleasant and even catchy. Matthew Pidgeon as Bob is suitably likable, but neither smug nor forcibly adorable; Cora Bissett plays Helena without the intolerable self-awareness and solipsistic emotional drama of so many female characters in romantic plays, movies, and TV series.
In a recent Guardian blog, Brian Logan confessed that his enjoyment of Midsummer made him wish to see more rom-coms in theatre - in spite of how much I am trying to acquire a proper Londoner’s cynicism, I have to confess I share his feeling, as long as he promises they will all be this good.
Till 6 February 2010