Magazine article The Spectator

Dido's Life on Camera

Magazine article The Spectator

Dido's Life on Camera

Article excerpt

Katie Mitchell explains to Henrietta Bredin how she is creating a parallel film world with Purcell's opera

It is 350 years since Henry Purcell was born and his music is, gloriously, being played and sung all around the country. And there are a lot of different Didos about: Christopher Marlowe s Dido, Queen of Carthage at the National Theatre; Purcell's Dido and Aeneas pretty much all day on BBC Radio Three a couple of weekends ago; at the Royal Opera House in a joint venture by the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor (see review page 38); and, in another joint venture, by English National Opera and the Young Vic, as After Dido, directed by Katie Mitchell.

Gerard Manley Hopkins rhymes Purcell with rehearsal but I don t think he could have imagined the space in which I meet Katie Mitchell during a break in the sixth week of a seven-week preparation period.

There are banks of video and sound recording equipment and, fitted in like pieces of a jigsaw, three miniature film sets - a kitchen, a bedroom and a study with slatted blinds.

Smiling seraphically, a still point in the midst of all this, Mitchell explains that the idea for After Dido came about when ENO s artistic director, John Berry, contacted her after seeing her production of The Waves in 2006. She had used live film and sound to reflect the way in which, in Virginia Woolf's novel, key moments are captured in a series of recurring images. He initiated a conversation about whether there might be a way of using some of those techniques in the presentation of an opera. That was a wonderfully brave and experimental gesture and, when I thought about it, the first piece that came to my mind was Dido.

Knowing that Mitchell loves dance and often includes it in her theatre work, most recently in Euripides The Trojan Women (Hecuba, Andromache et al fabulously glamorous in ballgowns, dancing on the edge of extinction), I have brought her a copy of Gustav Holst's gentle and perceptive remarks about the joy of moving to Purcell s music . She reads with intent concentration then looks up and laughs. That s wonderful but there s not actually much dance in this production. We do have one dance, a tiny one, and we were going to have much more but there s a technical problem when you re working with live film, a time lag which means you can't precisely synchronise action with music. If I wanted to show a filmed close-up of hands, tapping a rhythm to the live music that s being performed, by the time it hit the screen it would be out of synch. So we haven t been able to do that.

But I feel as if I am dancing with Mitchell now, or that she is dancing me around the subject, in a supremely courteous and graceful fashion, trying to be precise about her work but not wanting to reveal too much before the event. As I ask her about the opera, about Dido's predicament, her raw anguish in abandonment, she takes a deep breath. We don't ever present the opera as a staged piece. What the audience will witness is the piece being played and sung as if it was a concert, but one of those amazing concerts when all the psychology and motivation is there in the singing but without the action. Simultaneously with that there are three stories of people living in London now, in 2009, who turn on the radio to listen to a live broadcast of Purcell s Dido and Aeneas. …

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