Unicorn Theatre, London – until 2 June 2019
For young teens and sensible over-11s there are few better introductions to classical, sung-through theatrical opera than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It has a pure emotional line, a sad simple tale of love and betrayal. It has simple clunkety-clunk lyrics by that worst of Laureates Nahum Tate, and rousing choruses between arias. Perfect: glamorous yet accessible, it plugs in to adolescent romantic yearning and sense of life’s unfairness.
So I hastened to sneak into an ENO matinee at the good old Unicorn, directed by its boss Purni Morell. Surrounded by school parties and weary teachers, I had an enjoyable enough hour (just under, actually – they need not have cut that other Witches’ chorus. We notice these things, you know).
But for some tiresome reason of “relatability” the Queen of Carthage is now a single urban Mum (we are told she is a feminist “icon” but she looks more like a wine o’clock depressive). Belinda the attendant becomes her dungareed daughter. The chorus too are dressed in the director’s idea of Sarf London estate scruffwear and Aeneas is a chap Dido met online (laptop open, the sonorous Ndjabulo Madlala first seen projected behind).
The lazy updating obviously makes nonsense of the story and there is oddity rather than subtlety in making Dido herself call up the witches of doubt and betrayal. And Morell’s flair has deserted her when it comes to blocking: there is a weary static quality to it all. When the chorus of neighbours are singing “the hero loves as well as you” it would really help if they addressed it to Dido, not the front row with their backs to her.
Musically it is okay, especially Eyra Norman’s Belinda and the spirited chorales. But it could have been a piece of theatre magic, and wasn’t. There is something depressing, even patronising, in the dully “relatable” modern setting too. This is a generation of kids who love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and fantasy films: they wouldn’t have been scared off by the odd robe or throne. And it would have made for sense for them of “When monarchs Unite”and Aeneas’ dutiful dereliction.
box office unicorntheatre.com To 2 June
rating two as theatre but a musical mouse for the ensemble