Saturday, 7 October 2017

Theatre review: Dido, Queen of Carthage

No good deed goes unpunished for Dido, Queen of Carthage in the latest Christopher Marlowe play to get an RSC revival in the Swan. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) leads the only surviving Trojan warriors on an expedition to create a new colony in Italy. On the way they're shipwrecked on the coast of Libya but Aeneas has friends in high places - his mother is the goddess Venus (Ellie Beaven,) who ensures everyone survives, even if their ships don't. There's more good luck because Libya was an ally of Troy's, and Queen Dido (Chipo Chung) greets the men as honoured guests, offering them lives of honour and luxury in Carthage. This still isn't enough for Venus, though, who wants Dido to give her son her own fleet to replace the one he lost. Being the goddess of love she knows just the way to do it, making Dido fall in love with Aeneas and pledge him her entire navy. The catch is she wants him to stay and be her king.

Aeneas swears to do so, but this conflicts with his vow to Zeus to found Rome as a kingdom to be ruled by his son Ascanius (Thomas Howitt, Samuel Littell or Arthur Longshaw) and his descendants.

So he's destined to break one of his vows and Dido becomes a tragic victim of the gods' meddling in human lives for their own interests. Marlowe mixes the gods' in-fighting with the story of the lovers, and while there's a lot that's positive about Kimberley Sykes' production, it's one that makes it particularly obvious how messy and confusing Marlowe's plotting is, particularly when it comes to this divine interference.

Of the more frequently performed Marlowe plays this is my least favourite, I find it quite dry and verbose - not least of all the most famous speech, referenced in Hamlet, in which Aeneas describes the fall of Troy. Grierson is an actor I struggle to warm to anyway, which leaves me with little to cling onto in an already hard-to-like male lead. Fortunately his co-star is much easier to get on side with: I've only seen Chung on stage once before and remember finding her a bit wooden, but she's clearly moved on in leaps and bounds since then, making Dido funny, sympathetic and steely, fighting against the divine mind-control as long as she can.

Amber James also makes an impression as her sister Anna, screwed over in the crossfire of the main plot, while Ben Goffe gives the distinct impression his Cupid only sticks around in disguise so long to keep trolling Daniel York's Iarbas, the neighbouring king who was likely to win Dido's hand before Aeneas gazumped him.

There's some lovely setpieces in Sykes' production, like the opening storm which sees Tom McCall's Iloneus clambering up ropes to stay out of the water, or the recurring image of the gods spilling the sand that covers Ti Green's set to create rain. I also liked the suggestion that the gods' powers come with grotesque side-effects: The body horror of Venus having a drip needle permanently stuck in her arm because the love potion is actually her own blood that needs to be drawn regularly; and Will Bliss' Hermes, whose messages are not only written on his body, but seem to actually hurt him (there's a distinct touch of Dolores Umbridge's quill to the scene of Nicholas Day's Jupiter writing on him.)

An uneven show, then, that struggles to make the more convoluted plot elements make sense, and lapses into lengthy dull patches, but also comes with some memorably inventive approaches to the characters and gets a strong, tragically relatable central performance out of Chung.

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe is booking until the 28th of October at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis.

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