Dido, Queen Of Carthage – May 2009


By Christopher Marlowe

Directed by James MacDonald

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th May 2009

This production was very good, the actors all did a fine job, and I have nothing against the set or costumes, although the initial scene with Jupiter was placed so high it was hard to see what the Gods were up to from our lowly position (‘twas ever thus). No, the only problem I had with this play was the tedious nature of the writing. That Marlowe could bore for England! Anyone who thinks he wrote Will’s stuff needs their head examined. No real characters, relatively little emotion (all the suffering was in the mind, and, towards the end, my backside) insufficient plot and not much humour, at least not in the text. There were a couple of funny moments with Iarbas, and some laughs with Cupid and the nurse, but all in all I don’t plan on seeing this one again.

Steve found it more enjoyable, mainly because he saw a dire production at the Globe last year which I wisely avoided, and he was so pleased to see a really decent production that he coped with it better than I did – he’d been immunised, as it were. Still, he only gives it 6/10, so once again we’re of similar minds on this one.

The story is simple. Leaving aside the godly machinations which I didn’t entirely follow, Aeneas and his followers, fleeing from defeated Troy, are tossed by a storm onto the coast of Carthage, which is in southern Libya if the dialogue is to be believed (it’s not just Will whose geography was as bad as mine, then). So there they were on the (northern) coast of Libya and they’re warmly received by Dido, who despite giving them succour is tactless enough to demand over dinner that Aeneas tells her court all the grisly details of what actually happened at Troy, and how it was defeated. This story, well told by Mark Bonnar as Aeneas, was one of the better bits of the play. I noticed that Dido, who had been so insistent on hearing the details at the start, was the first to ask him to stop once he got to the gory bits. He didn’t, so we got the horrors in full, although I did detect a hint of spin in his assertion that there were a thousand warriors in the wooden horse – just how big was this beast? Two hundred to two fifty warriors I’ll accept, a thousand is pushing it too far.

But anyway. The devious Venus, mother of Aeneas, is concerned for her son, and substitutes her other son Cupid for Aeneas’s boy, Ascanius. Given a small golden arrow, the tip of which Venus had used to prick her own breast, Cupid proceeds to make Dido fall madly in love with Aeneas to the discomfort of Iarbas, a neighbouring king (and something of a looker, too, with just the right amount of bulge in the muscles) who’s in love with Dido. Sadly, Dido’s sister Anna is in love with Iarbas, so it’s a bit of a love trapezium situation.

All of this is complicated by Aeneas’s destiny to found Rome, which explains why he speaks Latin at moments of extreme tension (though it doesn’t begin to explain Dido’s occasional use of the same language). After she tells him of her love (as they shelter in a cave from a ferocious storm thoughtfully provided by Juno) his first reaction is that he’s not worthy, then he vows undying devotion and to stay with her forever, then he gets a reminder of his mission and he and his men all head off to the ships only to be called back by Anna. Then Dido offers him her kingdom, he agrees to stay, she steals the ships’ sails and oars, he gets another message direct from Jupiter via Mercury telling him to shift his backside over to Italy, and Iarbas helps them to refit their ships so they can set sail.

Not that Aeneas wants to go, but he finally tears himself away leaving a lovesick Dido to grieve. Telling her sister that she wants to make a private sacrifice of everything that Aeneas has left behind, with Iarbas’s help she builds a pyre, and left on her own, pours oil over everything including herself. Seated cross-legged on the middle of the pile, she then strikes a match, and with the lights down, we get the sound effects of a raging fire coupled with the glow of the match for several seconds before the flame burns out. All that’s left is the discovery of her burnt remains by her sister and Iarbas, and their subsequent suicides, Iarbas with Aeneas’s sword, and Anna by hanging herself with Iarbas’s chest plate. Not a cheerful story then.

Apart from the fall of Troy story, I enjoyed the way Iarbas reacted when Dido had the disguised Cupid on her lap. Cupid was singing a song, and Dido and Anna were smiling at him, while Iarbas was having a good sulk. At one point, Anna exchanged looks with him, and he plastered a happy smile on his face just to appear sociable, but it was lovely to see the way the scowl returned once Anna looked away.

He had another lovely reaction later on when Aeneas and his men were wondering how to get away when Dido has made their ships unable to sail. Iarbas had earlier made a sacrifice to Jupiter (nothing bloody, just burned some powder), and prayed that Jupiter would intervene and remove Aeneas from the kingdom to give him a chance again with Dido. When Aeneas tells him that Jove has sent instructions that he’s to sail for Italy immediately, Iarbas lifts his eyes up and mouths silent thanks to the god for granting his prayer. Beautiful. Naturally, he’s only too happy to help out with the ships, thinking his luck’s in. Be careful what you wish for….

As already mentioned, the performances were fine. I liked Kyle McPhail’s Mercury, apparently suffering from narcolepsy, who only roused himself a couple of times – once to take a message to Aeneas, and the other when Jupiter pulled a feather out of his leg. Even so, he soon settled back to snooze, giving his ankle a gentle rub as he did so. Ganymede (Ryan Sampson) was also good, holding out for a Playstation, an iPod and some other stuff (or the Olympian equivalents) before he’d let lecherous Jupiter give him a proper ‘cuddle’. Siobhan Redmond made an excellent Venus, all wiggles and seduction, while Susan Engel’s Juno was the wronged and bitter wife to perfection. Their scene together, when Juno is about to kill the sleeping Ascanius, only to be thwarted by Venus, was good fun, and although they kissed and made up, I don’t think it will last.

A couple of other things to mention: apparently somebody was helped out during the first half, unwell. They were at the other end of our row, and the reason I didn’t notice it was because I was too concerned about someone stepping on the tomatoes which had spilled onto the floor after the feast. The floor was covered in bright blue rubber marbles, the tomatoes were bright red, and the actors were constantly walking in their vicinity. It was only a matter of time, but thankfully Alan David (Jupiter and Ilioneus) managed to rescue them first. Whew. I could finally concentrate on the play again – I think that was a good thing, on the whole. Still it was his first play, apparently, so I can safely say he got better with practice. Glad I’ve seen it, don’t plan on seeing it again.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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