Dido, Queen of Carthage
I read this play by Marlowe fifty years ago when I was an undergraduate. I thought it was unputonable. So I read it again before I went to the Swan to see Kimberley Sykes’s production. I still thought it was impossible.
It certainly isn’t a very obvious twenty-first century blockbuster, but it’s always good to see an old play by a great dramatist for the first time. I wasn’t disappointed. It helps to know a bit about the Trojan wars in order to be able to follow some of the references, but it’s easy to mug that up on the internet before you go.
This is the first Marlowe production at the RSC where I have heard Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’ and I suspect that the RSC’s voice coach Anna McSweeney did a great deal of work with the company to make the verse speaking so effective,
The story is very simple. Aeneas is shipwrecked in Carthage after the Trojan war. The gods manipulate Dido into falling in love with him. She rejects her would be lover Iarbus. Aeneas eventually leaves her. She kills herself.
There is a lot of talk in this play, even though many of the long poetic speeches are cut or curtailed. But it’s made very palatable by Ti Green’s wonderful design. There are some splendid effects and lovely use of the stage space. The banquet scene where Aeneas tells the story of the Trojan War has an authentic middle eastern meal on small benches while the other characters are the audience and the audience watches the audience watching Aeneas, played by Sandy Grierson. Lovely frames.
The set is a sandpit, creating the footprints of the gods at the beginning – a metaphor for the whole of the action – the dousing of fire and the connections of the characters with shifting ground, both physical and metaphorical. Wonderful effects are created by proscenium rainstorms, characters arriving through the water – sea, rain – proleptically preparing for the play’s conclusion.
Dido’s suitor Iarbus (Daniel York) was not at all what I epected from reading the play. He held the audience’s fascinaion throughout. I had also not expected my reaction to the gods. They even control the music (a wonderful eclectic score by Mike Fletcher). It is they who are responsible for the tragedy at the end and it is their conspiracy to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas which leads to our complex reactions to her death at the end. It isn’t just a thwarted love story; it all happens because of blind belief in the gods (God? Protestant? Catholic? Marlowe as atheist?)
There are other hints of Marlovian subtext, nicely but subtly brought out. There is the relationship between Jupiter the (splendid Nicholas Day) and Ganymede (the cute Andro Cowperthwaite) and between Juno and Hermes. It was good to see a hilarious Cupid played by Ben Goffe. Watch out for some fascinating details. There are some tattooed feet. There are presaging echoes of Doctor Faustus. I ended up thinking how powerful this play must have been when Dido was played by a teenage boy.
I wish the ending had been more subdued and subtler. I could have done without all the squirming as Dido dies, and the end was shouty and screamy. The last very few minutes apart I really enjoyed this rarely played piece. You should see it. Come and make your stay complete with a night at Moss Cottage.