The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are surely among the most irritating characters in theatre. Self-important and humourless, they’re a cringe-worthy reminder that love’s young dream really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Midsummer, written and directed by David Greig with music by Gordon McIntyre, borrows a name, Helena, and the solstice setting from Shakespeare’s comedy but thankfully ditches the moaning teenagers in favour of a much more interesting man and woman struggling through their mid-thirties in modern-day Edinburgh.
Helena (Cora Bissett) is a lawyer with a platinum blonde bob as severe as her views on relationships (she gives her sister’s imminent marriage to a man she met on the internet one year). It’s the Friday evening before midsummer and she’s sitting in a trendy wine bar, in front of a hideously expensive bottle of wine. Stood up by her married lover, her little black dress is looking increasingly funereal. On the other side of the room is Bob (Ewan Donald), a petty criminal with a featureless face who’s reading Dostoevsky and hates lawyers who drink in trendy wine bars. So it’s a bit awkward when, bleary-eyed and hung-over, they wake up in bed together the next morning. It’s Bob’s birthday and this is just the beginning of what will turn out to be a roller-coaster of a weekend.
Greig’s quick-fire and rib-tickling dialogue grabs you from the start and never loosens its grip. Helena and Bob speak half to each other and half to the audience as the play snakes its way around the nonsense of modern culture, pausing to raise an eyebrow at such things as car park ticket machines that promise that “change is possible”. And this verbal dexterity is matched by eye-catching and inventive set design and staging. A stuffed toy becomes a talking penis, a bed frame metamorphoses into a bondage club and Bob’s contemplation of the fried egg he’s speared with his fork turns into a Bob-focused studio debate (complete with audience participation) on the theme of “Is this it?”
But there’s warmth and compassion mixed in with this postmodern japery, too; Midsummer’s wit is sharp but not caustic. The way in which Helena and Bob continually interrupt each other to tell the audience their differing versions of the same events is funny but endearing as well. These are two complicated, compelling people stranded in the midsummer of their lives; no longer young enough to believe in a Hollywood ending but not quite old enough to resist the temptation to re-write history. It’s poignant to learn from Helena that Bob’s initial reaction to his crime boss dying of a heart attack was not a crowd-pleasing joke about going for a health check, as we’re first told, but to think about his estranged son. This emotional undercurrent of regret and yearning is deepened by McIntyre’s songs which, accompanied only by the guitars played by the actors as they sing, have the rawness and fragmentary lyrical simplicity of folk music.
Bissett and Donald have a nicely natural chemistry as the unlikely couple. On the basis of her performance here, it’s no surprise that Bissett won the Stage Award for Best Actress when Midsummer debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009. Whether staggering around in an alcoholic haze or throwing up on the steps of the church in which her sister’s getting married, she’s riveting as the funny but vulnerable Helena; exuding the wild energy of a woman who’s waving a white flag at life at the same time that she’s sticking up two fingers at it. As Bob, a man who has become accustomed to blending into the background, Donald has the less showy role. Nevertheless, he turns in a sympathetic and nuanced performance that ultimately has the audience rooting for him and his potential future with Helena.
There’s something enjoyably irreverent and utterly appropriate about setting this play against the gilt-edged decor and elaborate drapes of the Theatre Royal. Fast-paced and written with wit, insight and indelible honesty, Midsummer is a euphoric punch in the air for anyone in their thirties. The kids may be all right (sometimes) but so are we. As it turns out, change is possible.
For more on this year’s Brighton Festival, read our preview.