Dido and Aeneas

Music by Henry Purcell, libretto by Nahum Tate, with additional text by Christopher Marlowe
Iris Theatre
St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
(2010)

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First performed at a Chelsea school for girls in the late 1680s and often said to have been written for it, others suggest that Dido and Aeneas was originally intended for court presentation. There is no extant complete score, though it is known that there was a prologue and various dances and other material. For this production director Daniel Winder has added other music by Purcell and texts from librettist Tate's play on the same subject and from the earlier play by Marlowe to create a fuller, masque-like entertainment such as might have been presented at court.

Musically it is a delight under the direction of Ben Palmer with his Orchestra of St Paul's and the Syred Consort. While the main roles are performed by singers, the chorus are placed at the side of the stage while actors and dancers perform their roles and some of the spoken text.

Designer Cara Newman uses a palette of creams and faded brown with sails billowing from the lighting rigs on either side and a great rent sail drawn down across the stage to become a turbulent sea, against which the richer brown of stately Dido's gown stands out and grey-blues identify the Sorceress and her witches.

Winder, with his movement director Elissavet Aravidou and choreographer Holly Noble, have devised some interesting episodes including a prologue with Dido mourning at her husband's grave, a great storm that wrecks Aeneas' fleet and leaves his followers struggling in the waves, a mimed hunt and a sailor's jig; when Dido sings of cupid the lad himself appears, blindfold and with his bow to shoot darts at the lovers. The ideas are good but their execution lets them down, especially when puppetry and mime are involved. Where movement is clear cut it is effective but when it becomes fussy it loses conviction.

High notes and the church acoustic place big demands on singers and perhaps it is inevitable that some of the text is impossible to follow, illustrating it physically should help but not if you are wondering what on earth is going on as well as what is being sung. At least the performer should look as though they know what they are doing and why a girl pretending to be a boy should be throwing cushions up into the air during a court pavane was beyond me. If you want to strike them from the scene just quietly and unobtrusively remove them.

If only all these performers had the stage confidence of David Baynes's Cloanthus, or his doubling as the Sorceress's spirit messenger mimed to a vocal line sung by the Sorceress Claire Eadington herself.

Rosemary Galton is a strong and moving Dido and Phillipa Murray and excellent Belinda. Unlike them Edwin Mansfield's Aeneas is also asked to speak and then seems to lose his vocal presence, though he is certainly not helped in suggesting a leader of men by wearing what looks rather like a pyjama jacket.

This is a production that is perhaps trying to be a little too ambitious with the resources available but full marks for trying and what deficiencies there are do not stop this from being a very enjoyable experience.

Run ends 5th September 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton