>DIDO AND AENEAS by Controluce Teatro d'Ombre

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 11 mar 2001
>time: 6pm
>venue: area d1, east coast park
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


The term "shadow-theatre" conjures little in my mind except for a book I possessed as a child which told you how you could make animal silhouettes with your hands - at least, if you were prepared to break all your fingers with the weird contortions required. I never quite mastered the art.

With such limited experience, I didn't quite know what to expect from a company specialising in "shadow puppetry". In the end, the entertainment offered by Controluce Teatro d'Ombre in conjunction with The Necessary Stage turned out not to be of the 'hand-becomes-rabbit-becomes-seagull' kind. Company craftsmen had created wooden cutouts, which showed black against backgrounds of illuminated painted transparencies. The effect was striking - a photo in reverse but not in negative, or a hole in a picture where the subject should be.

The cutouts were beautifully and often intricately carved; the backgrounds painted more impressionistically, but in striking colours - the company had created a wonderful palette of light. Mediterranean turquoises vied with rich ochres for the eye's attention and the yellow of faded parchment made the black shadows seem like ancient bloodstains on a long-forgotten page. The dark figures, trees and animals cut through the radiance, becoming something deeper than art, something darker than life: becoming primeval daubings on a wall of light, becoming mythic.

And the myth in question - that of Dido and Aeneas, the Queen of Carthage and the founder of Rome respectively - proved to be an excellent choice. Shadow play with very little vocal narrative is not the best medium for transmitting complexities of plot, so the company had done well to opt for such a simple story (it could be engraved on the head of a pin). It allowed them plenty of time concentrate on the more relevant business of creating beautiful images and striking visual metaphors.

>>'Mediterranean turquoises vied with rich ochres for the eye's attention and the yellow of faded parchment made the black shadows seem like ancient bloodstains on a long-forgotten page.'

The narrative, so to speak, was set to the music of Henry Purcell's opera of the same name, a baroque jaunt with all the flourishes and lyrical repetition one might expect. Nonetheless, the shadow play was generally well paced and choreographed. Scenes which mingled real human silhouettes with those of the cutouts were particularly effective, and the transitions between scenes, worthy of an analogue PowerPoint, were inventive and sometimes delightful. There was, however, an occasional manifestation of home video syndrome ("I can't think what to do next so I'll just zoom in and out, in and out…") especially in what should have been the more dramatic moments. At the start, particularly, Aeneas's ship was thrown around by the focus-finder for way too long, and it made me question the quality of the coming entertainment.

Now, have you ever seen the see the phrase "site-specific" in the publicity for a play? It's a new piece of jargon which appears to mean that the theatre group in question can't afford a proper venue, so they instead perform on top of Ah Pek's shop-house, their voices lost beneath the din of traffic and housewives pounding chillies. To TNS' credit, they neither used the offending jargon in their flyers for DIDO, nor chose a busy intersection to perform by; but they were definitely using the venue - East Coast Park - as a clever little selling point for their sea-faring, shadowy show. DIDO AND AENEAS is a story of the tides and the good old ECP had been deemed the most poetically appropriate place to perform.

The thing was, a large fence had been erected around the stage and makeshift auditorium in the spirit of no peeking without paying, and this meant that you couldn't see the sea. Nor could you hear it over the music and indeed - call me an old landlubber if you dare - you weren't really aware of its presence, mythic though it be, in any way at all. So while it was certainly nice to hold the show outdoors, the potential for thematic site-specificity was pretty much wasted.

Not that this mattered too much. Apparently, the Italians themselves were most reluctant to stage their show outdoors after bad experiences in Europe's less clement climate. As well as the fickleness of the weather, it seems they feared that the dramatic impetus of the piece would be lost or diluted outside the confines of a black box. Well I'm glad the guys at TNS persuaded them otherwise, because I can't think of a show less suited to such a claustrophobic space or more suited to picnic theatre. As the music was recorded, acoustics were pretty much irrelevant, so the open air served as well as a concert hall; and blasphemous as it sounds to say this, you didn't need to focus your attention on the stage/screen all the time: you were never likely to miss any great revelation of plot, and if any particularly striking motif chanced to slip by you, it was bound to pop up again in a couple of minutes. Indeed, if I had been forced to watch the whole thing intently, as one must in a traditional auditorium, I can imagine being rather bored by it, so the distractions of food and company were welcome aids to enjoyment.

Of course, one can go too far. Sources reveal (I feel like a tabloid journo!) that on the night before I watched it, a contingent of schoolchildren from one of Singapore's premier educational institutions had preferred to play with their laser pointers and make audibly snide comments rather than to pay attention to the show itself. While their behaviour may be inexcusable, it is equally true that, despite being part of the 'M1 Youth Connection' festival, this was manifestly not a kids' show. I mean, it's baroque opera, for crying - or rather trilling - out loud. I understand that whenever Controluce Teatro d'Ombre tours schools back home, it holds workshops before performances to prepare the audiences and it's a shame that the same provisions were not made here.

So go see, go listen and go eat your picnic by the concealed seaside - but leave the kids at home.