REVIEW: Dido, Queen of Carthage at the Swan Theatre, RSC

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Chipo Chung as Dido and Amber James as her sister Anna. Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC

‘By far the most stunning experience of the season’

– Steve Sutherland reviews Dido, Queen of Carthage, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, until 28th October

MUCH mischief has been made down the many centuries by scholars who insist that Christopher Marlowe was, in fact, William Shakespeare. Or, at very least, that he authored some of the Bard’s more famous poems and plays.

There is, though, hard evidence to the contrary, perhaps the most salient being that, in the midst of Hamlet, that most tragic of dramas, our Will pauses briefly to take the rise out of the work we’re here to critique, Marlowe’s Dido, Queen Of Carthage.

The moment comes when the troubled Prince is engaged in hiring a troop of actors to perform a play before the court which will mirror his current vengeful predicament. With this in mind, he requests a speech by Aeneas about the fall of Troy which a player duly delivers at some expanse until Polonius, Ophelia’s father and, according to Hamlet, a “tedious old fool”, interrupts, complaining: “This is too long.”

Hamlet nods and agrees: “It shall to the barber’s.”

It’s like an Elizabethan version of the disses rappers record in beefs with their rivals, and I’m afraid we’re down with Billy boy on this one. Heck, Dido does go on a bit, and the speech he’s chosen to mimic, much like the phone call in a movie, is a crude device provided by Marlowe to fill in the audience with some back story. It’s a typically wordy and ungainly solution which would be insufferably dull were it not for such gothic flourishes as, “Young infants swimming in their parents’ blood/ Headless carcases piled up in heaps/Virgins, half dead, dragg’d by their golden hair/And with main force flung on a ring of pikes/Old men with swords thrust through their aged sides/Kneeling for mercy to a Greekish lad/ Who, with steel pole-axes, dash’d out their brains.”

Plot-wise, we’re in hock to Virgil’s Aeneid and his classic recitation of how Aeneas, in flight from his native butchered Troy, washes up on the shores of Carthage. Here, in a bid to secure his safety, his mother, the goddess Venus, ensures Queen Dido falls in love with him. All well and good except Jupiter, the biggest cheese of all the gods, impels Aeneas to fulfil his destiny, get on his Trojan bike, seek out Italy, establish Rome and, of course, hasten big tragedy.

In other words, the usual. By and large, Dido continues the RSC’s current penchant for so-so Caeesar-y plays studded with exceptional lyrical set-pieces, all absolutely brilliantly acted, staged, sound-tracked and lit. But amongst this collection of exquisite silk purses fashioned from sows’ ears, Dido is by far the most stunning experience of the season.

The stage itself is a giant sandpit, the sand ominously grey as ash and marvellously engaged by designer Ti Green to create a waterfall effect through which the beleaguered characters are thrown. Mike Fletcher’s music is by turns mad, quirky and ominous; especially fun when orchestrated by the gods’ commands, while Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting amplifies the drama beautifully, most markedly in the amorously tense cave scene.

Then there’s the cast, magnificent all. Particular favourites are Ben Goffe’s sinister Cupid, toddling around injecting hapless victims with a blood-filled syringe in place of his usual quiver of arrows, Amber James’ conflicted, hair-plucking sister Anna, and both the leads.

Sandy Grierson is a creditable Aeneas, every bit as dithering as the afore-mentioned Dane, while Chipo Chung’s Dido steals the show as she should, splendidly unbalanced, by turns regal and infatuated, paranoid and purposeful, right up to the awful self-immolation which is so telegraphed in the text that it’s pretty ridiculous her court can’t see it coming. We may inwardly urge Shakespeare’s Hamlet to just get on with it and stop piddling around, but the gruesome denouement of Marlowe’s Dido has us silently screaming Di-don’t!

Director Kimberley Sykes’ staging is handsomely traditional, but her real masterstroke is in characterising the gods as a narcissistic posse, cavorting around in an indeterminate time-zone without a care in eternity, equipped with, when they wish, anything they want, like a heavy rock soundtrack or a video camera. Not to make too much of it but it does seem to suggest that mankind’s abiding curse, urged on by opposing ideologies and fictitious deities, may be to commit unspeakable acts of barbarous idiocy in perpetuity. Or, as Shakespeare somewhat more succinctly put it in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport.”

But then Lear itself was recently roundly mocked in the RSC’s uproarious production of The Hypocrite. When the Bard’s plot is explained to that incorrigible scoundrel Sir John Hotham – old bloke gives away his wealth to his daughters, they make off with the booty, want no more to do with him – he wails: “ What! Three hours!”

You reap what you sow. These playwrights eh, such wags!