March 29, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Dido, Queen of Carthage (National) @ The Cottesloe Theatre

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I’ve been a bit slow at getting a review of the National’s new studio production of Dido, Queen of Carthage up, which has given me a chance to have a look at some of the other notices it’s received. Interestingly, it’s been quite divisive: certain of the broadsheet critics have given it very favourable reviews, mostly occasioned by the opportunity to actually see a straight production, while the bloggers I’ve read have been a bit more negative.

As much as everyone wants to find greatness in Marlowe, the 20th century’s rediscovered dramatist, there’s no getting around the fact that Dido isn’t a great play. The prevailing view is that it’s student work, possibly with Nashe (credited on the title page, but barely mentioned in the programme). Large chunks of it are almost direct translations from The Aeneid, and it’s slow, the first few scenes taken up with a pointless division then reunion of the shipwrecked Trojans followed by Aeneas’ long soliloquy detailing the horrors of Troy’s fall. Complaints in the reviews have mostly been about the running time of three hours – rarely a complaint with Shakespeare, but in a play such as this where so little actually happens, more of a problem.

James MacDonald’s production was a straight and faithful telling of the text, even down to the brave inclusion of the Latin dialogue between Dido and Aeneas (here a masterly stroke, the two lead characters boiling over with passion until they lapse into their native tongue, careless of decorum, becoming pure emotion). In his hands, it became the story of a relationship founded on false grounds that swiftly goes wrong. Anastasia Hille and Mark Bonnar dominated throughout, the former barely able to take her eyes off her love, while the latter gazed continually into the far distance, his mind racing ahead to his destiny. Dido therefore became a traumatising portrait of unequal love destroying lives, the two unable to reconcile their committments.

Hille was particularly impressive in the title role, first appearing in ritual dress as a formal queen, but quickly showing her humanity as she listened to Aeneas tell of the Trojan wars. Once influenced by Cupid, though, she became fascinating, a mess of contradictions, paranoid fretting and carefully staged maneuveres as she pursued, won and lost Aeneas. Her performance was often heartbreaking, made the worse by the knowledge that the gods had caused her to fall in love with Aeneas in the first place while also ordering him away – the cruelty of her situation was inescapable.

Moments of particular beauty came as Aeneas and Dido finally parted to the sound of breaking water, she turning away from him while he slowly, step by step, walked backwards and off the stage. She began speaking aloud of his departure long before he left the stage, leaving him to listen, poker-faced, to the earliest stages of her laments, adding extra poignancy to her words. Her subsequent panicked fantasies of his progress, eventually arrested by Sian Brooke’s terrified Anna, were similarly traumatic, conveying a grief bordering on insanity. The calmness with which she asked Iarbas to help her strip her bed and build the fire that would become her own pyre was upsetting to watch, right up to the final moments as she poured petrol over the pile and herself before striking a match, the lights fading to darkness. The subsequent deaths of Iarbas and Anna were, sadly, an anticlimax.

Bonner’s Aeneas was also effective, particularly so in the extended monologue describing the fall of Troy. Staged in stillness, with the rest of the cast hanging on every word, Bonner succeeded in making a long, slow scene interesting. For most of the production he was played with an element of distance – if not explicitly looking far into the beyond, he was relatively taciturn and betrayed little of the obvious emotion that Dido did. While the circumstances causing his behaviour were clear, in the context of their relationship he essentially became emotionally unavailable, driving Dido ultimately to distraction.

The gods who caused the tragedy were separated from the mortals through colourful costumes and an exaggerated acting style. For the opening scene, Jupiter’s boudoir was created on an upper level, with the topless Ganymede lolling on his lap and Mercury lying to one side, neglected and bored. Alan David’s Jupiter was a creepy old man with libido far younger than his years, who harumphed like a spoiled child when his dallying was interrupted by Venus. The upper level provided a heavenly platform from which Mercury leapt in order to descend to earth, and from which he could later deliver Jupiter’s orders to Aeneas, via a vocoder that duplicated and deepened his voice as he spoke. However, the gods by and large failed to interest – it was the human story that caught the attention, and the bickering of the gods dragged on somewhat. Long scenes between Juno and Venus as they argued over the child Ascanius grew tiresome.

The set consisted of a long purple screen that rose and fell to create differently sized spaces on the purple-gravelled stage, and a series of yellow curtains behind which were hidden smaller, more elaborate sets – the African jungle in which Ascanius was laid, the cave, Dido’s bedroom. It felt somewhat fussier than was required, but at least added an element of visual interest. Dido’s bed became central in the final scenes, firstly being decked with Aeneas’ oars and sails, then being stripped in order to create Dido’s funeral pyre. Far more effective in terms of setting, though, was the repeated noise of distant waves lapping, calling to Aeneas and never allowing him to settle.

Far from a flawless production, the chief problem with this Dido was its length and slow pace. However, there were many pleasures to be found: the beautiful music (including startling vocal performances from Kyle McPhail and Jake Arditti), solid supporting performances (Obi Abili’s Iarbas and Stephen Kennedy’s Achates were both excellent) and a moving central story that I found genuinely engaging. I’m not sure there’s a case for renewed attention to the play, this production will probably serve for quite some time, but the opportunity to finally see it on stage was extremely welcome.

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