Written while he was an undergraduate, this is Christopher Marlowe’s first play. It does indeed come across as a young man’s play – at times dramatically overblown and bombastic, rambling and inconsistent. But, under James MacDonald’s direction it, nevertheless, provides a spirited and entertaining evening in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium – a space similar in size to that in which it was originally performed..
The core of the story concerns the love affair between Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage. Aeneas has escaped from Troy after its destruction by the Greeks, only to be shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage –modern day Tunisia.
Dido is a Queen who is the object of many suitors’ attentions. Their pictures adorn her palace. She chooses none of them – perhaps a not so veiled reference to the behaviour of Marlowe’s own Queen, Elizabeth. Dido’s latest suitor is Iarbas who she both keeps at arms length yet encourages.
The arrival of Aeneas and his men seems to present no danger to the status quo. Dido is generous in offering to help the shipwrecked travellers, and Aeneas glad to receive it. Aeneas tells his story and that of the sack of Troy in graphic and overlong detail. It is an account that does not especially impress Dido, her court or her current suitor. However, the gods have different ideas and meddle in human affairs for their own entertainment.
In fact the play opens with the god Jupiter – on a raised platform - dandling Ganymede on his knee. Jupiter is sleazy and far from godlike; Ganymede lives up to the Elizabethan meaning of his name - a male prostitute. This scene – as might be expected from a playwright who is both blasphemer and atheist - sets the tone and creates the atmosphere for the rest of the drama.
The other gods in the play are similarly inappropriate and sadly comic. Venus – who instigates Dido’s infatuation with Aeneas – is also inappropriate and amusing. She is, however, finely portrayed by Siobhan Redmond. Among a strong ensemble cast, other notable performances come from Sian Brooke as Dido’s sister Anna and Obi Abili as Iarbas. The latter is good at conveying his almost petulant exasperation at the loss of Dido’s interest and affection to Aeneas after the spiteful intervention of the gods.
However, the performance of the evening comes from Anastasia Hille as Dido. She is convincing not only as a generous Queen who rescues the shipwrecked travellers – and would possibly marry Iarbas – but also as the lovelorn woman desperate for Aeneas’ affection. She was even - finally - believable as someone tipped over into suicidal madness when Aeneas deserts her.
The music, performed live and written by Orlando Gough is nicely entertaining and seamlessly integrated into the action.
This well acted and staged performance is a little over long at three hours (including interval) but is illuminated by the clarity and inventiveness of James MacDonald’s direction and Anastasia Hille’s performance in the title role.
In repertory at the Cottesloe Theatre until 2nd June
This review was written for The Morning Star