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Reviews from the Edinburgh International Festival 2007 (3)

La Didone
After Francesco Cavalli (music) and Giovanni Francesco Busenello (Lyrics)
The Wooster Group
Royal Lyceum

New York based experimental theatre company The Wooster Group's marriage of opera from its earliest days and Sci-fi schlock provides a futuristic feast for the eyes and ears.

The company's director Elizabeth LeCompte specialises in multimedia works that challenge both performers and audiences by bringing together seemingly unrelated elements.

On this occasion, she takes a 17th Century opera telling the sad story of Dido and Aeneas and runs it side by side with a 1960s cult movie called Planet of the Vampires. Actors switch between the two with alacrity and, at times, play in both simultaneously. Indeed, some of the Italian is simultaneously translated by modern characters. Confusingly, their version frequently differs from that on the surtitles.

The Wooster Group are keen on the visual impact of their work and this is a multimedia feast. There are four normally-sized TV screens constantly projecting images, including some from the movie, at stage level. In addition, three large horizontal screens that can rise and fall go for larger scale imagery above.

This all has a fantastic effect, which complements the silver spaceman costumes and sometimes shaky (deliberately) movement. Within this framework, two stories develop and to an extent overlap and illuminate each other.

Dido, the widowed Queen of Carthage, sweetly played and sung by Hai-Ting Chinn, cannot see the charms of the obvious suitor, Andrew Nolen's Iarbus. He is heartbroken when with Cupid's help, she prefers an outsider, Aeneas, portrayed by John Young.

In the future, a spaceship loses its mate and then most of its inhabitants begin to behave oddly, having had their bodies taken over by aliens who have lost their planet.

The primary impetus for the 100 minutes comes from the classical tale, which is played out to an interesting conclusion as the Queen is given a reprieve from what seemed like inevitable death. The singing all round is good and the music varies from the classical to heavy rock guitar riffs.

Nothing in this production is predictable and the mix of artistic media may not please those who like traditional performances. However, anyone who comes to La Didone with an open mind should find much to enjoy in an eccentrically varied but always engrossing evening.

Philip Fisher

Benjamin Bagby
The Hub

These days most of us outgrow our appreciation of the fine art of bedtime stories before we hit double figures, however there is still something undeniably hypnotic about the power of the storyteller, which is probably why this ancient and most basic means of entertainment is still with us today.

Beowulf is no cosy tale to snuggle down with, recounting as it does the terror wrought upon Danish King Hrothgar's court by the bloodlusty monster Grendel, a descendent of Cain. Hearing Hrothgar's plight, warrior Beowulf, reputed to carry the strength of thirty men, travels overseas to fight Grendel before taking on his mother, and finally a dragon who finishes him off in the process. Even on the page, the story which spawned a thousand fantasy novels is evocative enough to conjure up images of Nordic battle, demonic lairs and valiant sea-faring. When spoken in its original language, it is mesmerising.

Benjamin Bagby is an extraordinary performer who provides an extraordinary evening's entertainment. Glazed in candlelight and accompanied by his six-string harp, he recreates the role of the scop, a mediaeval storyteller who could perform epics of up to six hours long or more for the entertainment of the town. The tale is told in its original guttural and rich sounds, and often Bagby breaks into a hybrid of song and recitation. The harp flutters around its six notes whipping up suspense and lulling pensively around the words, in an altogether entrancing combination. Aside from the feat which Bagby achieves in memorising the archaic rhythms and unfamiliar sounds of the language, he is a captivating storyteller who moulds each word like a carefully carved stone.

Bagby does startle half of his audience by prematurely ending the piece after Beowulf's first victory, but his truncated version allows him to give enough time and space to the portion of the poem he deals with, and the result feels like experiencing a piece of history read aloud.

Lucy Ribchester

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©Peter Lathan 2005