Dido’s Bar, Royal Docks

by Archie Whyld

It struck me that the journey to Dido’s Bar, through east London, past City Airport and to a warehouse adjacent to Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery, allows us to imagine what it feels like to be a new arrival in a strange world. And this, Dido’s Bar, a reimagining and retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, centres Dido’s narrative, namely her experience as a refugee in a foreign land.

Set in a cabaret-style music club, with the audience seated at tables, action unfolding around the room, and a live band of international musicians treating us to beautifully composed jazz and world music, director Josephine Burton has created something very special. Never have I so closely witnessed and felt the depicted struggles and trauma of a refugee in a land where she isn’t welcome.

The production is inspired by Burton’s encounter with a Kurdish Iranian refugee who is now a Finnish resident, multi-instrumentalist Marouf Majidi. Majidi is in the band – guitar, tanbur or clarinet in hand. It’s a touching example of life imitating art imitating life.

Dido, played magnificently by Lola May, sings heart wrenching songs about loss, the struggle to be accepted and her blossoming love for Aeneas. The atmosphere shifts in Act 2 and we find ourselves in a different bar owned by the coldly cruel Turnus, who treats his migrant workers with a mocking disdain. The ‘othering’ of those from elsewhere is strongly suggested, and the descent into violent tragedy seems to come all too easily. Turnus is lambasted: ‘You can’t imagine anyone else except yourself’.

What probably lies at the core of this production’s success is how Burton, and writer Hattie Naylor, have made this ancient myth speak to us in the here and now; it’s so shockingly and depressingly relevant. It is also refreshing for the women characters in a Greek myth to be given a voice with the traditional demise of Dido, a lovesick suicide, be contemporised. Go and experience this moving, sensitively written, expertly directed and brilliantly-acted, epically relevant story whilst you can.

Dido’s Bar tours through 29 October.

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