Dido at Unicorn Theatre
Director Purni Morell’s swansong to Unicorn Theatre is a modern adaptation of Dido, based on the 1689 opera written by Henry Purcell and librettist Nahum Tate, founded on the original story within The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil around 25BC.
The spacious stage hosts the ensemble – minus the leading lady – as they stretch and talk amongst themselves, patiently waiting for visitors to take their seats. A Greek statue can be eyed in a corner, close to the English National Opera seven-piece orchestra (conducted tonight by Valentina Peleggi) along with three spruce trees strung amongst the ceiling rigs. As the lights darken and focus on the cast, traditional baroque music is played, complete with a theorbo and harpsichord. Belinda (Eyra Norman) introduces the opera, the character reimagined here as Dido’s daughter rather than the lady in waiting, and as the opera progresses, she gives an undoubtedly star-worthy performance; surprisingly this is the 18-year-old’s first ever professional production. Dido (Rachel Lloyd) is not the Queen of Carthage here either, but a single mother with a potential alcohol addiction. There is no accompanying text to the opera, either a physical one or words projected on the back wall, which is detrimental to the experience.
Though staged in a refreshing contemporary setting with modern costume design – both by Khadija Raza – the story is lost, mainly due to its missing text, rendering it frustratingly incoherent, so that Dido’s suicide feels unemotional and we lack investment in the heroine. The characters partake in Frisbee and football – which inadvertently rolls to the orchestra, a mishap that is fortunately taken in jest by the audience, but despite these light-hearted moments the concept and adaptation are disoriented.
The performances are good overall, particularly Norman and Njabulo Madlala’s Aeneas, but we are left wondering what to derive from it; if only a few words can be comprehended from whole verses, then it really does render the experience a chore to sit through. Though the team states on an accompanying synopsis that they have left the opera open to interpretation, it’s a misstep in this case. With a reading of the story beforehand, the general plot can be surmised, but what did the ensemble sing? Well, your guess is as good as mine. The fact that Morell herself describes this adaptation to be “a bit flimsy” speaks for itself. Despite being staged in a theatre which prides itself in producing shows for young audiences, Dido unfortunately fails to capture even this older reviewer.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Dido is at Unicorn Theatre from 11th May until 2nd June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.