Following last year’s collaborative productions Lost Highway and Punch And Judy, English National Opera and the Young Vic come together once more to create After Dido, a multi-media production inspired by Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas, with the unmistakable stamp of director Katie Mitchell.
Rather than depicting the story of Dido And Aeneas, Mitchell’s production takes inspiration from its themes, centring, according to the programme notes, “on three contemporary urban stories of grief, lost love, departure and death.” These stories are set in the present day, on the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, and take place in Vicki Mortimer’s set, which comprises a kitchen, lounge and grubby bedsit, where four characters brood, cry and contemplate life and love.
Those who have seen Mitchell’s previous work, especially last year’s …Some Trace Of Her at the National Theatre, will be familiar with her unique, hybrid style of theatre-making in which film is as much a part of the production as live action. Here, a quartet of actors play the grief-stricken, lovelorn characters while an accomplished cast of ENO singers performs Purcell’s score, accompanied by a live string chamber orchestra; but all of them also act as camera operatives and body doubles as they film the on-stage action for a large screen that sits above them, facing the audience.
As a study of the process of film-making, Mitchell’s production is fascinating. We see how shots are set up, props are used and special effects created; even the wistful memories of the characters are evoked on screen with the help of a sand pit, a square of turf and some clever sound effects. Mitchell’s direction has no doubt been an education to the cast members, who are constantly rushing about the stage to set up shots, obtaining accuracy by using the on-screen image as a guide.
There is no dialogue in the production, only a few paragraphs of recited prose. Though there is no doubt that the characters – played by Dominic Rowan, Amanda Hale, Sandy McDade and Helena Lymbery – have suffered the slings and arrows of fate, what stories lie behind those pained faces, shown in close-up on screen, are only hinted at.
At just 70 minutes, After Dido is more an event than a piece of theatre. David Lan, Artistic Director of the Young Vic, describes Mitchell in the programme as “generating a new art form”. That, she has; one which is by turns intriguing, thought-provoking, genre-transcending, frustrating, cryptic and, above all, unmistakably hers.