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Dido, Queen of Carthage

Christopher Marlowe
Shakespeare's Globe
(2003)

It was almost tempting when writing the heading for this review to replace the name of Christopher Marlowe with that of director, Tim Carroll. This production may use Marlowe's words but the plot is straight out of Virgil and the creation is so much that of its director that all too often, the playwright pales into insignificance.

In that this play is one of Marlowe's lesser works and is rarely performed, perhaps one ought to be grateful to Carroll for his vivid imagination and great wit that set the home of the gods in a children's playground.

The refreshingly modern set, designed by Laura Hopkins, consists of a climbing frame, slide and integral swing and looks as if it might have escaped from Tate Modern next door. It certainly looks incongruous on the Globe's traditional stage. This is complemented by Claire van Kampen's appealing minimalist music.

It takes some time to get into the play as one is so dazzled by the effect of adults playing little children bringing a reminder of the late Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills. This can be extremely funny and when we see Dave Fishley playing the God Hermes dressed in size 35 training shoes and a pale blue sweater that could have comfortably accommodated the whole cast, one has to be enchanted.

Carroll's basic premise is that the African Queen and her Trojan lover are nothing more than playthings of the often petulant, child-like Gods. If that is the case then there is perfect logic to having the Gods themselves played as five-year-olds. This works on many different levels and much can be forgiven, as one sees James Garnon with quivering lip carrying a remarkably realistic 18 inch high doll, a toy bow and quiver of arrows playing Cupid. First, he chases Queen Dido and then, to even more hilarious effect, an elderly nurse who alternates between oblivious love and mature sanity as arrows hit and miss.

Amid all of this insanity, it is easy to forget the tragic tale of the mortals. Will Keen plays a diffident Aeneas, a man who has escaped from the destruction of Troy following the history of Helen and the Trojan horse. He washes up in Carthage where, as a result of Cupid's efforts, Rakie Ayola's Queen Dido literally falls head over heels in love with him, ditching the last of a long line of suitors, Dave Fishley as Iarbas.

Egged on by the sometimes warring gods led by Venus and Juno (Clare Swinburne and Caitlin Mottram), they begin a passionate affair. Sadly, the path of true love does not run smoothly as Aeneas realises, prompted by Hermes, that civic duties are more important than love and thus that he must leave for Italy.

In a beautiful, cathartic ending, the Queen together with her brother and sister are consumed by symbolic flames, perhaps inevitably represented by sparklers.

While Marlowe and Virgil are sometimes subsumed by their director, the playwright's poetry does shine, particularly in various speeches, with the highlight being that delivered by Will Keen as Aeneas relating the sad tale of the sacking of Troy.

It seems that the Globe has forsaken straight productions containing both male and female actors in traditional dress. In that, arguably, its purpose is to entertain the widest possible variety of the public, both English-speaking and otherwise, this is no bad thing.

As an introduction to the theatre and more particularly the delights of standing in the pit, Dido could be perfect. It will appeal to children for its simplicity and to adults for its poetry and at two hours and ten minutes including an interval, the legs do not have a chance to get too tired.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher