Monday, 20 April 2009


17/4/09, ENO at Young Vic.

1hr 10 mins. A Katie Mitchell interpretation of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. My gob was smacked, my mind was boggled and my gast well and truly flabbered by the sheer ambition and technical achievement. But at the end of the day I was left asking "why?" and wondering what it had added to the original.

A small period band conducted by Christian Curnyn sat off to one side. Above the playing area was a large screen onto which was projected the output of at least six or eight lightweight video cameras. The playing area itself consisted of three interlocking sets: a bedsit in which a young woman, presumably jilted, prepared to commit suicide; a kitchen in which another young woman lamented the absence of her dead husband/lover; a living room in which a young man plotted to abandon his fiancee, leaving the ring on the coffee table: so three simple narratives (like the Purcell) of love, loss, abandonment. The present-day protagonists were played by actors; then there were singers, including Susan Bickley as Dido and Katherine Manley, performing the Purcell largely as written (so far as I could tell) though with some added extras, including a couple of snatches of 20th century verse and a kind of prelude in which a radio announcer introduced the Big Number, Dido's lament.

What made it utterly extraordinary is that actors and singers alike doubled as technicians: camera operators, sound effects operators (at the opposite side of the stage to the band), props handlers, rushing around moving cameras, rustling bags and turning taps on and off in time with the action on stage etc etc. Every set-up seemed to have an accompanying close-up in which the action of popping pills or doing the washing up was repeated by a second crew (often an actor or singer or technician with fake sleeves) and the big screen cut between the two... with sound effects added on top. From time to time the singers would break away to perform a solo to one of the mics scattered about the set... and sometimes the whole crew would stop to sing a chorus, often beautifully.

Not even in the heyday of live television studio drama would a director have attempted anything so insanely ambitious, even with a wholly professional studio crew, with quite so many set-ups and quite so many cut-away close-ups and without using studio natural sound. Yet they carried it off near-perfectly. Bravo. Bravissimi. But... why?

The modern-day parallels seemed to add little to the original; there was clearly a danger (though it didn't happen) that worrying about camera angles and framing and sound effects would compromise the singers' performances; and there was so much happening that it was hard to know where to look or what to marvel at -- the complexity of what was being attempted, and the often ravishing look of the thing on screen (a special mention here for the lighting designer, Philip Gladwell, and the DP, Leo Warner).

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