Dido, Queen of Carthage was Christopher Marlowe’s first play and is often neglected in favour of his mature works, Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine. But from the beginning Marlowe was a pioneer of Renaissance theatre, famed for his “mighty lines”, and his Dido clearly inspired Shakespeare, its language and images haunt his work, and references to Marlowe’s play crops up in his depictions of lovers in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Rose Bankside’s simple but effective production certainly makes apparent why he may have found this play so compelling.
Dido concerns the passionate relationship between an exotic queen and military hero. Escaping the defeated Troy, Aeneas washes up on the shores of Carthage and is suitably received by queen Dido, but divine intervention in the form of Venus and Cupid’s manipulations mean the queen falls helplessly in love with the stranger she has welcomed. With the plot driven by two charismatic central characters, productions succeed or fail based on the portrayal of Dido and Aeneas. In Rhiannon Sommers and James Burgess the Rose has two very able and gifted leads. Often Sommers delivers the verse with skilful modern phrasing and idiom that make a few moments seem instantly contemporary; her halting declaration of love for Aeneas at times feels like a clumsy first date. She is particularly good in the final scenes, as Aeneas is commanded by the gods to forsake Carthage and return to his military life and Dido begs her lover to stay with an emotional intensity. Burgess is a commanding Aeneas, as evident in his long description of Troy’s destruction, a challenging set-piece speech which Burgess performs with clarity. If these leads are missing anything it is shared chemistry – their declaration of love lacks a dynamic sense of attraction and desire. But overall they are a strong pairing in a cast where some struggle with the density of Marlowe’s mighty lines.
Some other elements of the production are distracting rather than illuminating. Tinny classical music unnecessarily underscores a few scenes and the costumes, while attempting to delineate gods and mortals, are gaudy and confusing. Yet there is much to recommend here, such as the use of hand-held drums, thumping a beat that injects the prologue with an aggressive energy suitable for the military backdrop. And directors Alex Pearson and Jeremy Smith use this somewhat unusual venue well. They create clear fictional spaces, as the viewing platform, or main stage, becomes Carthage, and the Rose excavations, just behind, the shores of the land. We hear Aeneas’ voice from a distance – standing on the excavations – before he gradually moves onto the stage, arriving in Carthage proper. This well-established spatial distinction pays off in the final scenes of the play, which are essentially driven by one simple decision for Aeneas: land or sea, staying with his lover Dido, or continuing on his voyage.
Dido’s ending is notoriously difficult to stage – devastated by Aeneas’ departure, the queen throws herself into burning flames. The absence of stage directions leave us no idea how it was done on Marlowe’s stage. But Pearson and Smith offer a powerful and elegant solution that creates an eye-catching image of moving bodies and flowing pieces of red, orange and yellow silk. This staging, combined with the raw grief of Sommers’ Dido, makes the end of the play quite moving. Despite some difficulties, the production makes it clear why Shakespeare found Marlowe’s Dido and Aeneas a compelling inspiration for passionate, tragic, lovers.