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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Michael. “Dido Queen of Carthage.” The Guardian Wed 25 Mar 2009.
Michael. “Dido Queen of Carthage, Cottesloe, National Theatre, London.” The
Independent Thurs 26 Mar 2009.
Munson. “Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris.” In The
Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe. Ed: Patrick Cheney. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2004.
Christopher. Complete Plays and Poems. Eds: E. D. Pendry & J. C.
Maxwell. London: J. M. Dent & Son, 1976.
William. The Norton Shakespeare. Eds: Stephen Greenblatt et al. New
York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1997.
Deanne. “Dido, Queen of England.” ELH 73 (2006) 31-59.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.