The Theatreguide.London Review
Dido, Queen of Carthage
Cottesloe Theatre Spring 2009
When in your lifetime are you likely to get another chance to see Christopher Marlowe's first play?
That is the major attraction of this National Theatre staging, and for some it will be enough, despite the play's inherent weaknesses and a generally lifeless and unimaginative production.
Marlowe took his subject from an episode in Virgil's Aeneid: on his extended escape from Troy, Aeneas stops in Carthage, where Queen Dido (enchanted by Venus) falls in love with him.
When Aeneas eventually continues his mission to found Rome, the broken-hearted Dido kills herself. (I'm not giving anything away - Marlowe's audience knew the story coming in.)
Born the same year as Shakespeare, Marlowe was the second-greatest writer of a great age, and even his early work shows his mastery of grand, mouth-filling poetry.
One thing he hadn't really mastered at this point, though, was truly dramatic writing. His characters tend to stop the action to make grand speeches of narration, description or passion to each other, and then to pick up the plot and carry on as if nothing had just happened.
(To be fair, Shakespeare had a similar problem in some of his early plays - these guys were inventing an art form as they went along.)
So undoubtedly the most moving moment in the whole play comes early, as Aeneas describes the last days of Troy to his hostess. It is a beautiful piece of narration, but a self-contained aria that doesn't do much to advance the story or deepen the characters.
And the pattern recurs through the play, Marlowe's greatest strengths as a writer not actually serving dramatic ends. The result is a talky, static play in which the arias are lovely but essentially irrelevant and what happens between them is poetically shallow and uninvolving.
Director James MacDonald has not solved or compensated for the theatrical problems this raises, making for a pretty heavy-going three hours. And he does not seem to have guided his actors to the fullest embodiment of their characters.
Mark Bonnar is the most successful, by making Aeneas a very ordinary man of limited vision and depth. He tells the story of Troy with touching simplicity, and he clearly is way out of his depth when confronted by Olympian intervention or the extent of Dido's passion.
His romance with her is a pleasant interlude and not much more, and he just can't comprehend that it is anything more than that for her, this blindness freeing him from any charge of cruelty.
The role of Dido wants to be Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth, and calls for an actress with the passionate power of a Redgrave or Dench. But Anastasia Hille not only shows no indication of that power, but has chosen - or been directed - to play the Queen in a small, naturalistic, modern mode.
So, despite Dido's assertions of grand passion, Hille gives us no sense of anything overwhelming happening to her.
The failure of the production to engage us more than momentarily or to carry us to tragic heights leaves us time to notice small directorial oddities.
Why, for example, is Jove the only character, human or divine, in modern dress? Why does Dido occasionally smoke small cigars, and why does she light her funeral pyre with modern matches?
One senses the remnants of some attempt at universalising that was dropped in rehearsals, leaving odds and ends behind.
Yes, absolutely, making a stab at a rarely-done Marlowe play lies fully within the remit of a National Theatre. But this one, I'm afraid, is strictly for the Elizabethan students among us.
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