Queen of Carnage is a performance piece inspired by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Some of the music is recognisably Purcell’s but the inspiration seems to come as much from the Torture Garden as from the opera houses of seventeenth century London. The performance has moments of visual brilliance and there is a sort of crazed dignity in the performances of Sobriety Twist and Amy Kingsmill but the sound world created is not convincing on any level and those hoping for insights about Purcell’s opera will be disappointed.
The Space is a old building that has been transformed into a venue for small-scale arts projects. There are less than 100 seats for audience members and, as we arrive, we are encouraged to wander through a room in which there is a series of tiny photographs in strange red circular frames. The setting for the performance is a large room with an alcove with a curved arch roof at one end and, as we enter, Tim Bowen whose cello playing is subtle and assured is playing snatches of music that are sometimes soothing, sometimes sinister. There is a constant background of electronic sound, sometimes musical notes, sometimes sounds from the natural world. In the centre of the stage is a long latex cloak hanging from a high frame – from under the hem of the cloak protrude a number of disembodied hands. It is certainly a striking and unsettling scenario.
There are two performers – Sobriety Twist as Dido the Dominatrix and Amy Kingsmill as her servant/slave, a role I take to be drawn from that of Belinda in the opera. Dido sings, Belinda is silent. In addition to the strange and solemn strutting and pacing of the queen and her servant there are video projections on the screen behind the stage – the first is a huge close up of buttocks being whipped. The most striking video is of male figure in a mask that seems to emerge through a door in the white screen at the back of the stage and who interacts with Dido in a way that leaves us confused at first whether it is a real figure or a video projection. The dance between this figure – perhaps Aeneas, perhaps the dominatrix’s ‘gimp’ – is one of the many visual coups of the performance.
The music is the weak point. When the soundscape does take extracts from the opera either played by the cello or on the backing tape it does not convince. Twist’s mezzo soprano voice is not strong enough to carry the vocal line and, when we hear portions of Dido’s lament, it does not carry the emotional charge that is needed.
This is a production full of startling ideas and with some memorable visual images. But it feels like a work in progress and it needs further development before the creative sparks catch fire.