Despite the scarcity of facts available, we at least know enough to conclude that Christopher Marlowe was an extraordinary person. By the time he graduated with his MA from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge he already had Dido, Queen of Carthage, and certain mysterious services to Elizabeth I, tucked under his belt. During his brief life he rose to become the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day, relinquishing his mantle to Shakespeare only after he was stabbed to death at the age of 29. Unanswered questions abound: was he a secret spy for the government? Why was he arrested in 1593? Was this connected in some way to the accusations of blasphemy placed against him? And how does any of this tie up with his murder in 1593? The Marlow Myth – spy, brawler, heretic – persists even until today.
Whatever the truth of these biographical shadows, the substance of his literary output was never in doubt. And if Ben Johnson held Shakespeare in contempt for knowing ‘small Latin and less Greek’, he could hardly have dismissed the classically educated Marlow for the same offence. Marlow’s Dido is dense with classical allusion and the aggrieved Queen occasionally breaks out into hard, angry Latin. Recycled from Virgil’s Aeneid, the play tells the tale of the doomed romance between Aeneas and Dido, whom Venus causes to fall in love with her son. The two seem destined for everlasting bliss on Carthage’s sunny shores but fate decrees otherwise. Aeneas sets sale for Italy, resolved to found a new Troy, leaving Dido to burn in the fires of her own yearning.
Kimberley Sykes’ production at the Swan Theatre opts for visual simplicity: the stage is carpeted with fine sand and the characters are elegantly decked out in primary colours. Water, sand and fire play a prominent role in Ti Green’s design: in the several pivotal storms whipped up by Jupiter and Venus there are visceral thunderclaps and great flashes across the stage, while a thin sheet of water, illuminated atmospherically from behind, falls across the rear of the stage. At various times characters emerge dripping from this curtain of rain to find themselves, moments later, on a beach drenched in lurid sunlight. Mike Fletcher’s tense soundscape breaks out into sporadic streaks of powerful otherworldliness.
Certainly Syke’s sensual rendering never falls short of being engaging but, equally, it never quite launches into ecstatic flight either. There is the occasional tendency towards proclamation as if Marlowe’s words haven’t yet completed their complex passage from page to performance. Sandy Grierson’s rapt account of the fall of Troy is as gripping as Chipo Chung’s adolescent infatuation for Aeneas is bewitching, but Chung’s otherwise endearing portrayal lacks the might and majesty of a prototypical Cleopatra while Grierson’s celtic Aeneas, while highly likeable, lacks the heft and hardiness of a noble leader. Like Josette Simon and Antony Byrne’s portrayals of Antony and Cleopatra in Iqbal Khan’s recent production for the RSC, the sparks fly most powerfully when they are performing within their own sphere rather than alongside each other.
There are strong supporting roles. Ben Goffe flits impishly across the stage as the needle-wielding Cupid while Amber James gives a sensitive and alluring performance as Dido’s aggrieved sister. The dappily turned out Nicholas Day, meanwhile, gusts powerfully across the stage as Jupiter, king of the gods.
Which delivers us to the ending, about which I might be accused of churlishness. It’s just that, having offered the audience a real cascade of water, when you make a grand ceremonial show of encircling the queen in the sacrificed sails of her boyfriend’s recently departed ship, douse her in flammable liquid and flick open a golden lighter, the audience may start to build up hopes of an exhilarating pyrotechnical finish. Chung’s deathly convulsions are affecting, with the sand adhering to her frozen corpse closely resembling ash, yet it still doesn’t make up for the absence of live flame.