Dido, Queen of Carthage

Christopher Marlowe
RNT Cottesloe
(2009)

Production photo

There are some who believe that Christopher Marlowe is a greater playwright and Shakespeare. Indeed, there are even a few who claim that Marlowe penned the Bard's entire canon, which seems a little unlikely since he died before half of them were written.

Despite the efforts of director James Macdonald and his cast, Dido, Queen of Carthage does little to suggest that the Stratford man is in danger of being put into the shade by his Canterbury contemporary, 400 years after their time.

This play, based on Virgil's Aeneid, shows all of the exuberance of a youthful playwright, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. Repeatedly, Marlowe produces lush verse that is beautiful to listen to but can get in the way of a love story that has elements of Antony and Cleopatra, while attempting to bring out the tragedy of Troy.

The evening starts with an initial introduction to the tale from the elevated position of the louche, heavenly home of the gods, where Siobhan Redmond, playing a decidedly Scottish Venus, decides to help her suffering earthbound son, Aeneas.

Using logical casting, another Scot, Mark Bonnar, plays the outcast Trojan who has been left to wander the world following the treachery of Helen and the tragedy of the Trojan Horse. He and his closest compatriots eventually land up on the coast of Carthage (today's Tunisia) where there are reunited with old friends and introduced to sanctuary in the palace of the country's ruler.

The central figure on home soil is Anastasia Hille's Dido, a noble Queen of Carthage in search of the love that is not sparked, despite his physical charms, by her hunky admirer Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, played by Obi Abili.

The open arms with which Dido welcomes her visitors, and in particular their handsome leader, change in nature following a heavenly visitation from the boyish Cupid, who wittily spears her with a love potion. This leads to what is undoubtedly the play's funniest scene as the Queen vacillates over whether she feels love or detestation for poor, confused Iarbus.

The great affair is doomed from the start, as Aeneas is in love with his country to far too great an extent to care for a mere woman, however influential or beautiful.

There is also a problem in that, in this version at least, Dido suffers from moments of mental haziness that might relate to a congenital weakness or possibly some kind of addiction.

The most sympathetic character of the evening might be her sister Anna, Siân Brooke giving her all as a woman doomed to be a follower who has to subjugate her own passion for Iarbus to that of her sister. Even she has a strange turn early in the play, prior to suffering deeply as life begins to unravel for the Queen.

The production can look drab, although the African costumes designed by Moritz Junge are attractive and odd scenes at the back of Tobias Hoheisel's set inject vibrant colour. Orlando Gough's recreated period music sung by a pair of would-be eunuchs is, though, one of the evening's big attractions.

At three hours, although some of the set piece speeches are both powerful and beautiful, the wordiness eventually begins to undermine the storytelling, leading to the conclusion that however fine a playwright, Marlowe is definitely no competitor for Shakespeare's crown.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher