Dido: Queen of Carthage – The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Writer: Christopher Marlowe

Director: Kimberley Sykes

Reviewer: John Kennedy 

The she-wolf suckled twins, Romulus and Remus, sacrosanct symbols of Ancient Rome’s foundation, never got in the way of shrewd chancer and Roman poet, Virgil, in his bid to re-jig legend and myth in pursuit of a lucrative propaganda pitch.

Plagiarising, ‘reimagining’ Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid epic celebrates the perilous voyages of Trojan dynasty survivor, Aeneas – destined by the Gods to establish a ‘New Troy’ on the banks of the Tiber. Inevitably, there are a few page-turners along the way – for example, Dido, Carthage Queen, singleton stunner, without a doubt the most alluring and arresting so far.

Many will reference Henry Purcell’s eternal Baroque masterpiece with only the flintiest of hearts eschewing molten tears during Dido’s lament as, forsaken and deserted by Aeneas, she surrenders herself to their myrrh-bathéd lovers’ bed of flames.

With Dido, Queen Of Carthage, Director Kimberley Sykes brings both visceral and sympathetic balanced lyrical vitality to Kit Marlowe’s lesser-known text; all the more rewarding then is its unexpected richness in classical reference, intricately embroidered imagery, embracing humanity and pathos. The programme notes examine the very contemporary issues of forced mass migration through conflict and ‘ethnic-cleansing’. Whilst integral to the narrative, and made graphically evident in Aeneas’ account of the sack of Troy at Dido’s welcoming banquet, the refugee theme remains firmly subservient to the gods’ manipulative devices regarding Aeneas’ appointed destiny to found the new ‘Troy’ in Italy.

Not only must he overcome his guilt and shame for being led away from battle by his immortal mother, Venus, even worse, he must become a breaker of promises and breaker of Dido’s trusting heart. Of less honour, he believes of himself, even than the deceitful Greeks and their poisoned gift. Stolid, fatherly and resolute, Sandy Grierson’s Aeneas is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. And what of Olympus circus maestro, Nicholas Day’s Jove? He’s far too frothily enamoured and fawning after the deliriously bicep/multi-pack rippling body-heaven that is toy-boy giddy Ganymede (Andro Cowperthwaite). The latter is never seen again much to the disappointment of many in the audience. The gods can indeed be cruel.

Marlowe’s assessment of Love’s equivocal constancy is viewed through a cracked prism dependent entirely on either the capricious manipulations of the gods’ self-interests in pursuit of advantage and revenge or the baser and beastlier driven human pursuits of lust, possession and dominance. The latter personified by Daniel York’s King Iarbus, a man whose unrequited desire for Dido can ultimately only be consummated by suicide – but even there she preempts him.  Chipo Chung as Dido is a casting forged from the womb of Aphrodite herself – though sadly, the regal wisdom of Athena is beyond her ken.

Her descent into hallucinatory mania as the impact of Aeneas’ desertion becomes manifest defines her performance. Shivering as she douses herself in the oils of self-immolation, it is less from fear of death or the gods’ wrath, that haunts her mortality – it is for being eternally cursed as ‘That second Helena of Troy,’ the harlot bringer of destruction.

Whilst the body-count climax closure remains soberly below double figures and the duplicitous whores’- trading between the harpy-writhed Juno and feral, defensive Venus is a Mount Olympus rumpus to behold – it is Cupid’s (Ben Goffe) love-drug blood-spurting syringe chicanery that has the audience grateful that it is still daylight when the performance ends. Love is a drug and every dream home’s a heart-ache. Production conception and realisation are pungent with exotic, intense and incensed North African/Middle Eastern references. The Libyan sands that carpet the stage provide a wry contrasting tableaux to the rain-soaked Stratford swans feeding on the grass immediately outside the Theatre – a subtle piece of marketing – Equity rates notwithstanding. Thoroughly recommended – Dido’s death is a three-ply tissue issue warning. Then listen to Purcell and embrace grief’s near counterfeit perfection. Miss at one’s heart’s peril. It’s more for than just for blood plumbing.

Runs until 28 October 2017 | Image: Topher-McGrillis (c) RSC

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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