There can be few more ambitious school productions – brilliantly realized on the Playhouse stage– than the world premiere of RSC Associate Joanne Pearce’s translation and dramatization of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid: The Journey. Working for six months with Magdalen College School’s Theatre Academy whose students are aged 13-18, Pearce aimed high:
‘I believe that actors thrive best when immersed in something bigger than themselves. I wanted the Academy students to grapple with great language and a mighty idea,’ Pearce said.
The result, seen this week at The Playhouse, was stupendous. After nearly two and a half hours of magnificent language, spellbinding spectacle, puppetry, music and dance, the audience rose to its feet to applaud what Pearce herself acknowledged to be a ‘huge’ cast. ‘I found it impossible to say ‘no’ to anyone’, she admits.
In splendid spangled and feather head dresses, the gods sparred and plotted. Joshua Wade’s Jupiter and Lizzie Reavley’s Juno were magnificent, while Jennifer Tempest-Mitchell sparkled beguilingly. Krishan Patel’s Rumour seemed to almost outfeather the gods, but his rough northern Charon exhibited an earthy lexicon of cussid complaint. He knew how to obstruct the best of ‘em..
Locations were dazzlingly evoked. Carthage’s exoticism was beaten out in intoxicating drum rhythms, while Troy’s walls were broached by the spectal sight of a magnificent pale, silent horse. Its deadly cargo of ferocious Greeks, loosed on Troy’s hapless inhabitants was proof enough of the aptness of a warning ignored ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts’ . This was no temple offering, despite Hal Dunnett’s plausible Sinon’s weasel words.
The death of King Priam (Thomas Matthews Boehmer), spread-eagled, helpless on a sacrificial bench, was particularly graphic, and the savage deaths around him of his wife and childen excited horror and pity in classical proportions which Virgil himself might have approved.
Dominic Henry’s Aeneas looked a leader of men, especially in his gleaming breast plate. Henry was a hero who would eventually found Rome, but in single –minded pursuit of his destiny, would reduce Kate Apley’s enchanting Dido to wretched despair and desperate measures. Her dance of death was immensely moving.
Throughout this enthralling production, soldiers beat a frightening tattoo of war, horses plunged and hounds scented at the hunt, maidens danced, citizens toiled, tempests blew and the gods looked down. The music and singing were exceptional.
Brilliantly directed by Pearce, the production was anchored by Conor Diamond’s Poet - a superbly confident, eloquent narrator whose conviction and constant presence on stage held together disparate locations and stories.