Here’s a riddle for you: When is a Press Night not a Press Night? Answer: when it’s a matinee! A 1pm start for a slice of Christopher Marlowe heralded the beginning of a long but satisfying day in Stratford surrounded by the Royal Shakespeare Company in all its glory (or, when it came to Coriolanus in the evening, all its gory, but that’s a matter for another day).
I don’t know what the prospect of Dido, Queen of Carthage, by the aforementioned Marlowe, first staged circa 1590, does for you, gentle reader. This is the first time I’ve seen this play, having read it when I was knee high to a Punic warrior and probably not understanding a blind word of it. So I came to it with no preconceptions, other than the fact that “Dido” always makes think of a dodo and I’m not sure I would want to see a play about a dead old bird.
Don’t let that put you off! Kimberley Sykes’ exciting and visually eloquent production brings this rather hidden classic bang up to date, including scenes of drug abuse and homoeroticism – and that’s just in the first five minutes. The play opens with a grand gentleman, white linen suit reflecting his white flowing locks, like Santa Claus in a snow drift, wandering through a sandy landscape, out-staring any member of the audience who dares to stare back. This is Jupiter, annoyed that Juno has taken umbrage at his dalliance with Ganymede, a pouting, svelte young man who has difficulty keeping his top on. Meanwhile Venus, who has been mainlining some substance injected by her dealer, Cupid, is also clashing with Jupiter about the safety of her son Aeneas, who is lost at sea after seeking refuge leaving sacked Troy. Jupiter ensures that Aeneas and his followers are safely washed up on the coast of Libya; Venus ensures that they all meet up and will be looked after by the beneficence of the local queen Dido.
But Venus has further ambitions for Aeneas, so she engineers it that Cupid will disguise himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanius, prick Dido with his hypodermic, and ensure that Dido falls head over heels in love with Aeneas. It strongly reminded me of Shakespeare’s Hermia and Helena falling for Lysander and Demetrius – and vice versa. There’s a delightfully underplayed scene where Dido and Aeneas nip off to the cave for some Carthaginian Carnals, emerging later like a couple of relieved yet still bashful teenagers. At times it’s almost like a Libyan Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. What would Colonel Gaddafi have said?
But for every light moment Marlowe provides plenty of shade. There’s a very deeply tragic aspect to this play, from Aeneas’ moving (if long) account of the fall of Troy, to the genuine personal suffering of Iarbas, Dido’s suitor who can’t understand why she’s being so inconstant in her affections, to the imprisonment of the faithful nurse, and to Dido’s death by fiery self-immolation and the subsequent suicides of those around her. (I’m assuming after 425 years that it’s too late for spoilers.) I found it fascinating that, at the moments of high tragedy, when Dido and Aeneas part, and when Dido immolates herself, Marlowe gets the characters to quote directly – in Latin – from Virgil’s Aeneid, which would have acted as source material for the play. It’s like an early example of verbatim theatre.
The fascinating meshing between the gods and mankind not only acts as a framework for the play but is a running thread that weaves the lives of the mortals and the immortals together. There’s a simple truth here – if you’re a god, or you’re supported by a god, you will do well. If a god’s got it in for you, or you get in the way of what a god wants – then perish you shall. With the dramatic sifting of one handful of sand, they can create any kind of havoc they want. With one jab of his needle, Cupid can cripple or liberate your emotions. It just takes one message from Hermes, and Aeneas knows he has to abandon Dido; it takes two, actually; Aeneas proving remarkably stubborn over this.
There are so many refreshing elements to this production that delight and astonish. The surface of the stage is covered with sand, enabling it to represent a beach, where refugees might land or from where mariners might set sail, or a visual idea of the “sands of time”, or the dust that is everyone’s fate (gods excluded.) I loved the stylistic entrance of the shipwrecked Trojans, performing energetic diving forward rolls through the curtain of (real) torrential rain at the back of the stage. I loved the imaginative use of the torn down sails to create the ring in the sand inside which Dido would end her life. I loved the scene where Dido invited the men to inspect the portraits of her previous suitors on imaginary walls, where they would recognise someone they’d seen before, as though they were checking actors’ biographies in a programme – if only Marlowe had written “oh look, he was in Juliet Bravo”; alas a missed opportunity. I loved the updating of Cupid’s arrow to a drug pusher’s syringe. I loved the fact that Hermes was wearing a shirt made by Hermès (it might have been Versace, but the joke still stands). As you can see, there’s a lot to love.
Normally, musical accompaniment to a play like this feels artificial and invasive; but Mike Fletcher’s innovative and sympathetic soundtrack was absolutely spot on. From the portentous strings that evoke Venus’ doves to the plaintive clarinet that creates the smell of the souk (there’s even a wow moment of rock guitar in there too) the music really enhances the action and helps convey the emotions on stage. Ciaran Bagnall’s dramatic lighting adds power and exhilaration to the forces of Nature; and the costumes (see P. S. below) precisely reflect the finery of Dido’s court, the shabbiness of the refugees and the innate elegance of the gods – Venus’ and Juno’s dresses are particularly stunning.
What is a production without its performers? This is crammed full of exquisitely observed, finely delivered performances right across the board. Chipo Chung’s performance as Dido is a thing of beauty. When she presents Aeneas with her late husband’s cloak for him to wear, despite his protestations she’s never going to take no for an answer. When Cupid’s hypodermic is working its magic, she’s a most convincing bedazzled young girl, trying, but failing, to be appropriately coquettish as she reacts to Aeneas’ every syllable. To relieve the sadness of the account of the fall of Troy, she turns into Party Animal, every inch the good-time girl; and when she’s swallowed up in her own tragedy, she cuts an immaculately forlorn figure. At first, I didn’t think her death scene was going to work – there are no flames, for example – but cunning stagecraft and perfect stillness creates a devastating final tableau. We’d seen Ms Chung in Sheffield’s Julius Caesar earlier in the year where she was a fine Portia – but this was on another level.
She is matched by a strong performance by Sandy Grierson as Aeneas; his Scottish accent somehow underlining the character’s dour and warlike essence – this is an Aeneas that will leave light protestations to his co-refugees. Delivering that long speech about the fall of Troy – it probably accounts for over 10% of the play in itself – is a tough job, but his account never becomes long-winded or tedious as he brings the imagery of what happened fresh to our minds in all its lively atrocity. Although, physically, he’s not the beefiest of chaps, he’s like a coiled spring ready to leap into action without warning.
Ellie Beaven’s Venus also lights up the stage as she conveys the simple enjoyment of all her mischievous interventions in the mortal world; she has great presence, and her double act with Ben Goffe as Cupid is both funny and unsettling as we see the effects of drug abuse amongst the celestial beings. Mr Goffe is required to spend much of his time pretending to be Ascanius, physically cosying up to Dido, or the Nurse, or indeed whoever he wants – and the cheeky pleasure he derives from it is very infectious. The gods are all superbly presented; Nicholas Day is a naturally imperious Jupiter – you’re never going to cross him; Bridgitta Roy a splendidly sly Juno, lurking in the background, waiting for her moment to pounce; Andro Cowperthwaite revels in Ganymede’s brief but lascivious interchange with Jupiter; and Will Bliss’ Hermes is an amusingly world-weary postman until Jupiter plucks one of his feathers and then his nose starts twitching, ready to race like a Springer Spaniel on heat.
There are some great supporting performances from Aeneas’ Trojan followers; I particularly liked Tom Lorcan’s effervescently upbeat Iloneus and Tom McCall’s permanently suspicious Achates; and having a female Cloanthus, played by Lucy Phelps, creates an unusual but effective mix amongst the otherwise all-male retinue. Amber James is terrific as Dido’s sister Anna, always holding a helpless candle for her love for Iarbas, who’s superbly brought to life by Daniel York in a performance that combines brilliant throwaway humour and emotional trauma. At the performance I saw, young Ascanius was played by Samuel Littell and he truly held his own amongst all those grown-ups. Good work, young sir.
An unexpected treat of a play, that gives life to what otherwise could remain a dusty old tome on the bookshelf. Very enjoyable and highly recommended! Dido runs until 28th October at the Swan Theatre – get booking!
P. S. On the subject of costumes, the RSC has launched their Stitch in Time campaign, highlighting the importance, and unsurprisingly the expense, of accurate and evocative costumes in their historical productions. Even if you’re not able to contribute to the campaign, their website offers a fascinating insight into the attention to detail that their expert staff bring to creating Just The Right Outfit. Well worth a little donation, I reckon, if you admire their work.
Production photos by Topher McGrillis