Christopher Marlowe’s debut play, Dido Queen of Carthage is a story of all consuming love, mystical intrigue, gods and humans, and brutal violence. Not bad for a first try.
What will haunt you from the Royal Shakespeare Company production, which opened today in the Swan Theatre, is an impassoned monologue by the story’s tortured hero, Aeneas, which describes the slaughter and sacking of Troy.
Sandy Grierson, who plays the troubled general, regales his audience not with triumphs and victories but the horrific destruction of his beloved city.
Virgins impaled, children drowned in the blood of their kinfolk, men and women, defiled, debauched and dispatched. Worse, his beloved king, Priam, was horrifically slain, his body ripped apart and his hands cut off.
He becomes more distraught in revealing that both his father and wife were victims of the seige.
His graphic account is shocking and complete. Dido and theatre-goers listen in appalled silence.
Where Shakespeare might use poetic language to skirt around such moments of barbarity, Marlowe’s narrative spares us nothing. It is a superb piece of story-telling.
Aeneas escaped from his homeland with a handful of men and his bewildered young son, setting sail to Italy to establish a new city of Troy.
His Odyssey also tests his resolve as his mother, the goddess Venus, enchants and meddles, Jupiter makes a guest appearance and his vengeful wife, Juno, rages at her husband’s infidelity.
But his ship founders in a storm and the group wash up in Carthage, ruled by Queen Dido.
There are echoes of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a nod to Cleopatra in both the story and its central character.
This, too, is a tragedy with a final scene so shocking that one can only admire director Kimberley Sykes’ brilliant treatment of it.
Once taken to the royal court the dour Aeneas is pursued by a bewitched Dido. He may be a mighty warrior but he looks totally out of his depth when the target of an infatuated queen’s ardour.
She pleads with him to stay but, when Hermes arrives with a message from angry Jupiter, he must choose between loving a queen and obeying his destiny.
The production isn’t entirely actor, or, indeed, costume-friendly, thanks to Ti Green’s set design which sees the stage covered in dark sand.
The ensemble end up covered in the stuff, it sticking to their damp bodies and clothes after running through a rain curtain. The RSC must be washing every item of clothing after each performance.
Sykes occasionally seems overwhelmed by the scale of her first RSC production with some of the 19-strong cast appearing to be nothing more than window dressing.
A splendidly coiffured Nicholas Day, dressed in a rather impractical white linen suit – though playing Jupiter, king of the gods, he doesn’t have the laundry to do – is onstage before the play begins.
He’s eye-balling some front row guests and it is most disconcerting. Once Dido gets under way he has a moment with a rather lovely young boy and then all but disappears, only reappearing briefly and silently. What a waste.
But this isn’t his story. Ellie Beaven, as Venus, sets the mythical ball rolling by instructing her other son, Cupid (Ben Goffe) to beguile Dido so that she will fall in love with Aeneas.
The queen’s other suitor, Iarbas (Daniel York), is jealous while her handmaiden, Anna (Amber James, giving a fine performance), sees it as an opportunity to pursue Iarbas herself.
Chipo Chung’s complex Dido is initially confused as Cupid’s love potion takes effect.
But she is soon infatuated, obsessed and determined never to let the humble, dignified and single-minded Aeneas, leave her shores.
This is a great, if one-sided, love affair that is doomed from the off. Chung and Grierson make a handsome pair but the unsmiling, solomn Aeneas doesn’t really appear comfortable as a lover while Dido is all over him like a rash.
The tale, entirely fictional as far as historians are aware, is both profoundly tragic and deeply compelling.
The final scenes, with the distraught Dido, are fraught with tension, the audience stunned and terrifed about how it would turn out.
You can probably tell I’m being circumspect here to avoid ruining the denouement but, phew, we all breathed a sigh of relief and simply marvelled at the inspired direction.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, plays in the Swan Theatre until October 28.
Dido, Queen of Carthage
Profoundly shocking, deeply compelling, Marlowe's story of doomed love and destiny is epic story-telling.