Despite being the first play of theatrical behemoth Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage has scarcely been performed since its original debut in 1587. An operatic version was produced in 1794, then promptly lost in the Drury Lane Theatre Fire, and the National Theatre offered a version in 2009, but otherwise there have been very few notable adaptations of the play in theatrical history. Consequently, the RSC’S decision to revive this under-performed tragedy as part of the Rome season was a bold one – but, ultimately, one that paid off in spectacular style.
The narrative, based on books 1, 2, and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid, recounts the tale of Dido, the newly established queen of Carthage, who finds Aeneas and his troop of Trojans shipwrecked on her coast, fleeing the wreckage of Troy in search of Italy. While the Aeneid focuses on the political and historical significance of Aeneas’ journey, with his experience in Carthage merely a pit-stop, Marlowe realigns the focus to sharpen Dido’s individual story, and in doing so transforms a plot point into a self-contained tragedy.
Of course, extracting a single story-arc from an epic is always going to be a difficult task, and Marlowe’s use of the classical original reads a little bit like intellectual masturbation at times. He includes reference to a wealth of minor characters (e.g. Turnus, Aeolus) who play an important role in Virgil’s poem, but contribute nothing to a play centred on Dido . The amount of exposition required to justify Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage also results in a tonal disjunct between the two halves, with the second half containing the majority of Dido’s story and most of the emotional high points of the play, and the first half mostly trying to justify the dramatic landscape. This exposition also incorporates the introduction of subplots that are never resolved – for example, Juno’s jealousy over Jupiter’s affection for Ganymede, and Venus’ interest in Ascanius – which adds an unnecessary level of complexity if you have not read the Aeneid, making it harder to place the characters we do see on stage in the context of the wealth of classical myths that are alluded to.
The RSC’s impressive production, however, goes some way to circumvent the difficulties presented by the text through the use of costumes and staging. The individual qualities of the gods are never explained fully in the text, so Cathy Hill’s costume design includes kitsch allusions to their archetypal characteristics; Venus (the goddess of love) wears a red ball gown, Hermes (the messenger god) has a set of wings attached to his crown, while Jupiter wears a suave white suit, not dissimilar to Morgan Freeman’s style as God in Bruce Almighty. The staging is also effective; given that the Swan Theatre has an in-the-round set, Kimberley Sykes’s imaginative use of the space (especially in the final triadic scene between Dido, Anna and Iarbas) should be admired.
Lots of the directorial decisions are also effective at rejuvenating the classical material, especially Sykes’s decision to have the gods walking among the audience before the show begins, injecting a metatheatrical element that really emphasises the hierarchy of the divine and mortal characters. It is perhaps interesting to consider the way the divine/ mortal relationship reflects the relationship between audience and character; in a lot of classical texts, the presentation of the gods spectating the lives of mortals from a position of superior knowledge is not dissimilar to the position of the audience as the play begins, and aligning the divine characters with the audience in contrast to the spectacle of the mortal figures is a clever decision that emphasises the futility of Dido’s hopes and prayers against the rage of the god in the machine.
Even disregarding the artistic directorial choices, the RSC’s interpretation would stand up as a powerfully emotive production off the strength of the actors alone. In typical Marlowian fashion, the aspects of the story with the potential for drama are heightened to maximum emotional impact (e.g. the addition of Priam being maimed before his death), which makes for multiple emotional high points over the course of the play. Consequently, Aeneas’ description of the fall of Troy is narrated by a powerful monologue from Sandy Grierson, who, along with the other Trojan characters, brings a convincing sense of urgency to the cast of shipwrecked refugees. The stand-out performance, however, comes from Chipo Chung as Dido. Her tragic final scene is a hard one to execute convincingly, yet Chung manages it masterfully, reconciling the powerful external status of Dido’s achievements as a leader with her internal breakdown, portraying the dignity of a spurned woman in a way that at no point vitiates her strength.
The supporting cast are also incredibly strong. Amber James is arresting as Anna, Dido’s love-torn sister, and Achates, played by Tom McCall, is notably impressive in his support and admiration for his leader, even through moments of doubt over some of his decisions. The divine characters are also skilled at providing some comic relief in between the emotive events that take place in the mortal world, with Ben Goffe’s portrayal of Cupid standing out in particular. The rivalry between Juno and Venus, played convincingly by Bridgitta Roy and Ellie Beaven, also brings to mind a 16th century version of Made in Chelsea in the way it manifests itself in feigned conciliation and eloquent bitchery, a vibe that is reinforced by their black-tie costumes. Similarly, the opening scene between Ganymede and Jupiter adopts the darkly comic humour that has characterised the RSC’s Rome season, which establishes a dissonantly comic hallmark, meaning that the nonchalant disaffection of the gods only serves to reinforce the tragedy of the mortals in comparison. It is a shame the gods do not feature as heavily in the second half, but that fault lies with the script and not the production.
Aside from the intensified melodrama, the majority of the plot is surprisingly true to Virgil, which makes it a greatly gratifying play to watch if you’re familiar with the Aeneid. The success of the RSC’s production, however, lies in the fact that you don’t have to be versed in the classics to appreciate the human tragedy at the core of the narrative, and Sykes’s ability to make Marlowe’s verbose vaunt accessible is surely impressive. Even if you are unfamiliar with the material, this clever and bold adaptation from Kimberley Sykes is about as cool as Dido, Queen of Carthage can realistically get, and her achievement in bringing the tragic story of a complex and strong classical heroine to a modern audience should not be understated. A daring, poignant and powerful production that does phenomenal justice to Dido’s sorry story.