Katie Mitchell’s total re-imagining of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Young Vic is a masterpiece in its own way. It takes theatre, opera and film and distills them into a multi-faceted meditation on loss, grief and music’s power to stir deeply-buried memories. After Dido takes full advantage of the fact that Purcell’s score is both an incomplete mystery and a well-known gem, pivoting on one of the most mournful laments in the history of music.
Fictitious characters and situations often ignite recollections of people and events from real life as your memory wanders down its own private corridors before remembering to stick with the action at hand. Mitchell has simply removed the action and presented the corridors. Those hoping to see a modernised production of Purcell’s opera will be disappointed, but for those wanting to be immersed in an entirely new and gripping work that contains Purcell’s music nothing could be better.
The way she does it is this: there are three characters listening to Dido and Aeneas on the radio. The music conjures unbearable memories from each character’s past and we witness the imagery of those thoughts in different ways. Each of the three is dealing with loss of somebody they’ve loved deeply, and each character copes, or fails to cope, in their own way.
There are five or six cameras on stage at any one time (the space is crowded with stage-hands) filming events from the real and imagined present and the real or glamorised past, mixing them together on a large screen above the stage. This would be enough to concentrate on, but the stage-hands/camera-crew also double as the chorus and so they stop what they’re doing when they are required to sing.
The same is true of the soloists. On top of that, there is a sound effects team on the left of the stage and an ensemble of string players on the right. The audience is free to pay attention to any of the action, collating separate elements live as they would collate disparate memories over time. Such an ambitious idea can only work if the acting is exceptional and the music is beautifully performed. It is.
It may all be a little batty for some tastes, or distracting for others, but this is a deeply sincere and emotionally urgent production full of intelligence and unique vision.