I went to see ‘Once’ at the Phoenix Theatre last night with some friends. I hadn’t, I admit, been super keen to see it, but if there is theatre on the cards I am always willing to take a gamble.
At first it appeared that the cards may not be in our favour as we waited with increasing impatience for the doors to open. There was a “technical problem” preventing staff from letting us into the auditorium. Our friendly usher looked increasingly distressed, at last declaiming that it was only his second day on the job. Upon being told it would be at least another 20 minutes after curtain before we would have another update, my friends and I hightailed it to the pub across the road to await developments, pushing our way through the (increasingly) madding crowd to get out of the fray.
Ultimately the show went on (as shows do), and it was definitely worth the wait. Like most musicals it was a boy-meets-girl story, but in this case there were complications: both parties had people to whom they were still emotionally bound, though those people were not present. The girl was an immigrant to Dublin from the Czech republic while the boy was a frustrated musician working in his dad’s vacuum cleaner repair shop to pay the bills.
I liked a lot of things about the show: the staging that gave the impression of a simple black-box production even in the Italianate splendour of the Phoenix theatre (which, Wikipedia tells me, is where Private Lives debuted in 1930.) This simplicity lent the whole production an earnest air, a sort of innocence that more elaborate productions cannot easily capture–which was a clever trick considering we were actually in the heart of the West End. This also helped bolster the sense of threadbare desperation of the characters, both in financial situation and in emotional poverty at the time of their initial meeting.
I was also very fond of the way that globalization, immigration and transnationalism were represented in the narrative: though the story revolved around travel, separation and migration, they were still in some ways subtle themes, like the way many of the Czech learned their English through a soap opera and as a result ad some rather charmingly idiomatic expressions. I also really appreciated the way that the Czech/Irish accents warbled depending on what was being said: I know my own accent does this depending on what I say!
But mostly I was impressed by the dancing. (Yeah, you thought I was going to say the music, right?) Unlike most musicals, which are either your classic Broadway-show-tune-stylee-thing, or contemporary musicals which appear to frequently draw on boy-band choreographies, the danced parts of this one were rooted in modern dance technique. They had a really finespun, delicate feel that added an ethereal quality. The music on its own was very good but for me it was the dancing that elevated it.
The thing that stayed with me the most from ‘Once,’ though, was the way that the offstage relationships were not treated as obstacles to be brushed away as they so often are in stories of the same ilk. It is easy to start a story with the premise that two people who are already in other relationships (or, in this case, who have Very Complicated Things going on in their lives) become attracted to each other. (Which is, obviously, Wrong and Torturous.) It’s much harder to sustain the emotional resonance of those preexisting relationships when the two principal characters only interact with each other and the ‘other halves’ never appear on stage but rather are only alluded to. It’s difficult for the audience to remain emotionally invested in characters they do not see. This production managed it.
Many romantic stories treat relationships as discrete things; fat pieces of coloured ribbon that stretch out, one ending and another starting, with no overlap, no tangles. ‘Once’ allowed a complexity, a fraying. Knots. Desire is not constant and there can be multiple layers, multiple ties of affection pulling us in different directions. And sometimes these ribbons can be beautiful and painful at the same time.
‘Once’ doesn’t have the familiar narrative satisfaction that might be expected from a traditional romantic musical. That’s not to say the ending isn’t happy–but it’s not the obvious ending, either. And perhaps that is a braver choice than I realized at first.