In the middle of the midsummer night’s romp through Edinburgh that makes up the action of David Greig’s new comedy Midsummer (a play with songs), the two main characters – Helena (Carey Van Driest) and Bob (Randy Redd) find themselves in the “chill room” of a fetish club, tightly bound – and then suddenly left to their own devices – by a Japanese rope bondage artist. The tighter the bonds, Helena says she’s been told, the freer one’s mind becomes, physical constraint producing, in that zen-koan-like way, an abandonment of inhibition.
That scene encompasses in many ways the central dynamic of the play’s story. Helena and Bob are two lonely people who, at thirty-five, are smack between spring and fall themselves, and who find themselves tightly bound into the lives they’ve built thus far. Bob, who once aspired to write poetry and busk romantically around Europe, is a petty criminal (he fences stolen merchandise). Helena is a successful divorce lawyer who – at the cost of her self-esteem and happiness – has armored herself against the possibility of becoming one of her own clients. On Midsummer’s Eve they meet at a bar, get drunk, have sex, and part ways, only to serendipitously meet up again after both have had the kind of morning that brings the depressing realization that (as Bob puts it, on taking existential stock of his life to date) “this is it.” The bonds of life suddenly feel very tight indeed, prompting Bob to throw caution to the wind and take a wild leap. He proposes to Helena that she help him spend the extravagant amount of ill-gotten cash he’s supposed to be keeping safe for his thuggish boss, and they embark on a romp through Edinburgh that brings them not only to that emblematic sojourn in the “chill room,” but also, after a number of false starts and stops, to a fresh beginning to the second half of their lives.
Midsummer is a love story bound up with a midlife crisis story, and where the former makes it sweet, it’s the latter that lends it some weight and import. Greig’s characters have a likeable imperfection: their bumpy emotional and psychological battle against midlife stuckness gives a lot of vicarious pleasure. The play is narrated in flashback, and it becomes clear about halfway through that this is a story they’ve honed for retelling as they’ve continued journeying together through life. Normally I am not a big fan of plays that involve a lot of third person telling, but Greig uses the device to good effect, snapping briskly back and forth between the narration and the action, and often using the narration not just to tell what happened but also to give us a hilarious peek into the inner workings of a character’s mind. In addition, as the title announces, this is a “play with songs.” It’s not a musical – rather, the performance of songs works like a framework around and through the action, as Helena and Bob recount the story of their first weekend together in a kind of acoustic show-and-sing street performance. Redd and Van Driest, who have excellent chemistry as the oddly matched couple, accompany themselves on guitar, mandolin, and tambourine as they sing Gordon McIntyre’s congenial indie-folk songs, the lyrics of which often comment poetically and resonantly with their actions and feelings.
Narelle Sissons’ set consists of a small low platform bordered by an upstage wall of objects affixed to a house-shaped frame: a stained-glass window, a statue of an angel, a desk, a bed frame, guitar cases, and other items too numerous to list. The angel conjures the fairies of Shakespeare’s play, which serves as a distant structural model to Midsummer (both plays involve a movement from the rational to the irrational, where love is found); the rest of the objects are items accrued as the pair of about-to-be-lovers visit various locales around the city. Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design makes these objects glow and vibrate with color, allowing the set to morph and change as the characters ambulate from wine bar to apartment to parking garage to park bench to nightclub to restaurant to cathedral stairs and on and on. Director Tracy Brigden has staged the play fluidly: new locales are established quickly with a chair or stool and a shift of lights, allowing the play to move with the kind of “madcapness” that the plot demands. This nimbleness of the staging goes far to make up for the one weakness of the script, which is that, as entertaining as it is, it is overly long, and feels like it has two or three endings. That’s a quibble; the real ending, when it does come, brings the story around full circle in a charmingly satisfying way.