Dido Queen of Carthage at Cottesloe Theatre, the National Theatre, London, March-June 2009.

Chris Butler
Sheffield Hallam University

Chris Butler. "Review of Dido Queen of Carthage at Cottesloe Theatre, the National Theatre, London, March-June 2009." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/butlerdi.htm>. 


Director: James Macdonald; Set Designer: Tobias Hoheisel; Costume Designer: Moritz Junge; Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman; Music: Orlando Gough; Movement: Steven Hoggett & Imogen Knight; Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt.  

Jupiter/Ilioneus: Alan David; Ganymede/Sergestus: Ryan Simpson; Hermes: Kyle McPhail; Venus: Siobhan Redmond; Cupid: Ceallach Spellman / Theo Stevenson; Juno/Nurse: Susan Engel; Aeneas: Mark Bonnar; Ascanius: Freddie Hill / Thomas Patten; Achates: Stephen Kennedy; Cloanthus: Gary Carr; Dido: Anastasia Hille; Anna: Sian Brooke; Iarbas: Obi Abili; Trojab/Singer/Lord: Jake Arditti.

  1. The programme to this 2009 production of Christopher Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage at the National Theatre prominently features Hamlet’s speech in which the Danish prince appears to recall Marlowe’s play (or one like it in the unwonted energeia with which the sacking of Troy was described). “It was never acted,” Hamlet concedes, “or, if it was, not above once; for the play, I remember, pleased not the million. ’Twas caviare to the general” (2.2.416-8). The advantage of putting this comment in the programme, especially given the slow pace and two and a half hour running time of James Macdonald’s Dido, was that it reminded members of the audience who wished to number themselves among the cognoscenti that they would have to forego easy pleasures.

  2. Fortunately, the production offered much to enjoy, especially in the first half. Siobhan Redmond’s Scottish Venus, for example, moved and positioned her body with conscious eroticism, occasionally undulating like the waves of the sea that bore her, and she spoke in an insinuating, honeyed burr. As a result, the audience seemed always happy to see her and listen to her voice. Indeed, the various antics of the elegantly-costumed gods were all entertaining. The play opens in Jupiter’s boudoir, set on an upper level in bright light above a long purple screen that provides the backdrop to a bare stage. Jupiter’s love-toy Ganymede was camp, shuddering at the old god’s touch and then clutching himself with pleasure on being given Juno’s necklace. When the King of the Gods spoke an edict, his voice was echoed by a booming vocoder. This was nicely picked up in the second half when Hermes delivered Jupiter’s words from the heavens to Aeneas, and the vocoder echoed Hermes’ voice with tones like Jupiter’s—Hermes at the same time raising his feathered arms to make a striking angel-silhouette on the highest section of the backdrop. Hermes also lifted his arms slightly each time he stepped off the rear of the heavens, disappearing from view in a way that convinced the eye that he was dropping from a cloud.
  3. Mark Bonnar as Aeneas remained conscious throughout of his heroic destiny, often gazing out past the heads of the audience, while managing to elicit as much sympathy as the character allows. He achieved this partly through his rapport with Stephen Kennedy’s Irish Achates (Kennedy thus proved what an important function the character serves). Moreover, Aeneas’s Scottish accent made it plausible that the hero could appear exotic to Dido, who spoke with R.P.
  4. This question of accents is important. The more positive broadsheet reviews (Billington; Coveney) applauded the fact that the play was done “straight”—i.e. the costumes could conceivably have been worn by early modern performers when playing Trojans in rags and characters in courtly Carthaginian attire, and the minimal scenery was readily suggested by the text (the purple screen being pulled aside at times to reveal Dido’s queen-sized bed in a central niche, or, stage right, a luxuriant forest glade where Ascanius slept). This allowed the audience to focus on Marlowe’s poetry (already frequently powerful in what may well be a piece of student writing). I particularly enjoyed hearing Dido and Aeneas speak in Latin at moments of high passion: it lent those moments a suitably operatic feel. However, giving the Trojans Scottish/Irish accents is an act of interpretation, especially when their patron Venus also has a Scottish accent. For one thing, it emphasizes that at the time the play was written and performed, religion, politics and cultural identity were utterly entwined. Moreover, when it is remembered that Aeneas is bound for Italy, in order to facilitate the eventual founding of Rome, at the point where he is shipwrecked and then diverted by his relationship with Dido in Carthage, and that this diversion results in he and his men losing their sense of mission and taking to wearing luxurious clothes at Dido’s court, the accents serve to suggest that the Trojans may represent (faltering) Roman Catholics. Queen Elizabeth was frequently associated with Dido in Elizabethan renditions of the tale from Virgil (Williams 31-3, 38-42). Here, then, Anastasia Hille’s Dido, a widow with a gallery of suitors in her past, smoking cigarillos to calm her nerves and maintain her poise, may be taken for an Elizabeth past her prime. She wishes to detain Aeneas, but, other than herself and her court’s attractions, including hunting trips, she has nothing to occupy him with. The slow pace and straightforward enactment, therefore, allowed me to imagine how the work would have been played circa 1585. Would it have been played “straight” then, or would there have been some overt political pointing in the manner of presentation, via the use of costumes and props? This production demonstrates that it only takes a single decision with regard to accents to achieve a significance which a censor might find difficult to object to without conceding too much.
  5. By providing so much for the audience to think about, and by lingering on Marlowe’s poetry, the slow pace did not make the play seem overlong. However, the second half lacks variety and the final moments (after Dido’s suicide) represent an anti-climax. That said, Hille carried the second section with a passionate performance, persuasively devastated by Aeneas’s departure. After pouring petrol over herself and the pyre she had built of Aeneas’s former possessions and the bed they shared, she sat cross-legged and lit a match. The lights faded and the audience saw her flare up in imagination as the match burnt down. After her body was discovered, her jilted suitor Iarbas pretended to slash his throat with a sword and Anna hanged herself. Scholars argue as to the extent to which Marlowe was burlesquing his Classical source with these hysterical, superfluous deaths (Deats 194-5). Be that as it may, a production has to make a decision what to do about these closing, unconvincing moments. One answer might be to stress the artificiality of the stage-world with a stylized representation, thereby calling upon the audience to “piece out” the performed actions “with [their] thoughts” (Henry V Prologue 23). As mentioned, Dido’s holding a match before the audience’s gaze may have been a subtle attempt to do precisely this. However, given the psychological realism and intensity Hille had brought to Dido’s final scenes, the presentation of Iarbas and Anna’s deaths falls a little flat, with almost a school play feel. Since the work was first performed by children, this is historically appropriate and theatrically brave, but also emotionally unsatisfactory. The audience applauded, moved by the fate of Dido, but seemed rather stunned by the extreme artificiality of the final moments. Hence, if Shakespeare’s Hamlet did have this play in mind, it might be important that he made no mention of this anti-climax. This suggests that the intensity of what went before is what mattered to Hamlet—that is “caviare to the general”. Endings are necessary terminations and if they come across as artificial and unsatisfactory, perhaps that is all to the good in that this ensures that the audience retains the politically-charged complexities of the play’s middle sections most vibrantly in their memories.

  6. That the play was important for its influence upon Shakespeare was emphasized in the production itself, not just the programme. Aeneas turned to gaze out past the audience when he mentioned “tempests” in the first act (1.199); later, he stared out in the same emphatic way to deliver the phrase “a winter’s tale” (3.4.59). The strange scene in which Aeneas perceives a statue as his dead father Priam certainly anticipates the effect of wonder Shakespeare subsequently managed repeatedly to conjure, especially in his late romances. In short, Shakespeare possibly responded most of all to aspects of Marlowe’s plays which were not consistent with realist conventions. Refreshingly, the interpretative restraint of this production allowed plenty of scope for such an idea to be entertained.

Works cited



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© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).