Queen of Carnage
The Space, 12.04.17
Queen of Carnage is a multi disciplinary event incorporating video, installation and live art, masterminded by the artist Sobriety Twist. It is loosely based on Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, but reimagined in a modern BDSM setting where Dido is a dominatrix who falls for a hooded Aeneas and then mourns when he leaves her. There are a lot of intriguing elements, but taken as a whole, the event is muddled and awkward – neither the plot of the opera nor the elaborate staging provide any sense of coherence.
The space (or rather, the Space, a deconsecrated church on the Isle of Dogs) opens on time, but spectators are invited to spend the first twenty minutes examining the art installation before the performance begins. This includes a series of printed out emails pegged on a washing line addressing very specific requests to a correspondent known only as ‘Mistress.’ Also on display is a set of glass jars containing items including a dildo and a set of heavy handcuffs, what looks like a wicker approximation of the iron throne from Game of Thrones and, inexplicably, a tablet in a bin. On stage, a seven foot headless mannequin faces away from us, wearing a black cape that fans out from her shoulders to cover half the stage; pale hands are visible reaching out from underneath its hem. All this is atmospheric, if baffling.
The show begins, runs for about 25 minutes and then breaks for an interval, then continues for another 40 minutes or so. The interval comes too early for any clear sense of the performance to have emerged – I spent it reading about Purcell’s opera on my phone, but this did not shed much light on what I’d seen, nor on what followed. Sobriety Twist plays the dominatrix; she spends much of the first half on a stepladder with her face to the back wall so that her head appears to belong to the mannequin figure. Later, she reappears in a variety of magnificent costumes – a black rubber catsuit, a slinky red dress, a spectacular crown – to pose and gesture imperiously at her attendant, whom she often leads around the stage by a string of pearls dangling from her mouth. This figure presumably represents Dido’s attendant Belinda, but she doesn’t sing – only Twist actually performs any of Purcell’s music. There is a third character, Aeneas, who appears only as a projected ghost. The video installation maps perfectly onto the back wall of the space with its twin doors; the projection several times shows Aeneas opening and shuffling through one of the doors. In the second half, Twist performs a dance routine with the Aeneas-spectre to an aggressive electronic soundtrack.
The performance uses fragments of opera – both recorded and sung live by Twist – and parts of the show are accompanied live by a cellist. I lack the critical authority and the musical ear to comment in detail on the singing – it frequently sounded beautiful, but was often overpowered by the recorded accompaniment and most of the lyrics were inaudible either for that reason or because they were sung at the back wall rather than projected towards the audience. A few fragments of recorded voiceover were more audible but did little to clarify the relationship between the spectacle on stage and the Dido story.
Sometimes incorporated into stage action, and sometimes played over costume changes, the video art is startling and evocative. A black and white sequence in a spooky forest setting portrays Dido and Belinda hunting Aeneas. A later sequence shows a single eye staring out from behind a red leather doughnut, while a set of immaculately manicured hands claw at the camera. The most effective sequence is the first one – as the overture plays, Twist conducts an invisible orchestra with her riding crop in front of a projection of a pair of buttocks being subjected to leather straps, rulers and gloved hands. It’s a witty juxtaposition to overlay the conductor’s authoritative gestures with those of the dominatrix – this sense of humour rapidly evaporates, however, as the performance goes on.
I gather from my interval googling that Dido and Aeneas has been approached as an allegory for James II (Aeneas) being tricked by the Catholic church (a Sorceress) and abandoning the English people (Dido). Also, that in contemporary dance adaptations, Dido and the Sorceress have often been played by the same dancer, doubling them as two opposing forces of female power over men. This version, though it is often spectacular to look at, lacks the coherence of either interpretation. However, it was worth going just for the sparkly antlers in the final scene.