Dido, Queen of Carthage.
Presented by the Royal National Theatre, at the Cottlesloe Theatre, London. March 24-June 2, 2009. Directed by James MacDonald. Associate Director Cordelia Monsey. Set designed by Tobias Hoheisel. Costume by Moritz Junge. Lighting by Adam Silverman. Music by Orlando Gough. Sound by Christopher Shutt. With Anastasia Hille (Dido), Mark Bonnar (Aeneas), Siobhan Redmond (Venus), Susan Engel (Juno, Nurse), Stephen Kennedy (Achates), Obi Abili (Iarbus), Siam Brooke (Anna), Alan David (Jupiter, Lioneus), Kyle McPhail (Mercury, Hermes), Ryan Sampson (Gaynmede, Sergestus), Garry Carr (Cloanthus), Jake Arditti (Singer, Lord), Ceallach Spellman/Theo Stevenson (Cupid), and Freddie Hill/Thomas Patten (Ascanius).
What is the responsibility of a director to a rarely performed play? For the critics who savaged Tim Carroll's 2003 resurrection of Dido, Queen of Carthage for Shakespeare's Globe, the production's failing was in not providing a straight and sympathetic reading that would have allowed Marlowe's words to be tested fairly on the twenty-first-century stage. Instead, Carroll's high-concept, playground-set production caused considerable anxiety: critics were terrified that their only opportunity to experience the play had been wasted by a production that was unrepresentative of Marlowe's conception of the play.
The mounting of a second major revival only six years later on the same bank of the Thames was unanticipated, and James MacDonald's production would have come as a relief to those critics more concerned with a conservative, respectful reading than Carroll's playful approach. Reverent to the text and to the play's origins, this Dido expertly (and perhaps deliberately) delivered the production that critics had wanted the Globe's to be.
This production largely eschewed gimmickry, trusting Marlowe's text to hold the audience's attention. This was most obvious in Aeneas's long recounting of the fall of Troy. Sat among the rest of the company on cushions at a low banqueting table, his lament for home was delivered simply, holding both the on- and off-stage audiences in rapt silence with the power of his words. By allowing actors to explore the dignity and pathos of the verse, the production successfully evoked the story's epic quality, its classical weight and significance.
While the epic was implied in verse, however, this productions primary triumph was in unearthing the domestic drama at the play's core. In Dido and Aeneas, Anastasia Hille and Mark Bonnar played out the slow breakdown of a mature relationship, transforming the classical icons into contemporary lovers whose differing priorities eventually destroyed even the strongest emotional connection. Following Cupid's intervention, Hille's Dido was fixated exclusively on Aeneas whenever they shared the stage. Increasingly, though, Aeneas's eyes were drawn to a point in the far distance, his mind and attention consumed by destiny and the work given to him by the gods. This simple difference in focus lent great pathos to Dido's situation, and her actions became a desperate plea for his attention and love to which he barely responded.
These diverging priorities were occasioned, of course, by the gods. Jupiter's palace, in accordance with his status, was on a raised level high above the main stage, a luxurious and colorful world with deep cushions and sofas on which the fat, balding god dandled Ganymede. From this privileged and detached position, decisions were made which took no account of the concerns of individual humans.
Dido, on her first appearance, was a regal and formal figure, entering in full headdress and finery to greet the newcomers. By contrast, the ragged Aeneas was naturally inclined towards the domestic, ready to fall in love with Dido and make a home in Carthage. The meddling of the gods, however, imposed restrictive social conventions on the pair. Aeneas became restless and mobile, but the most painful change was that on Dido. Her regal duties forgotten, her one obsession became the man in her life, without whom she struggled to define herself. In love she became whiny and irrational, forced to conform to external conceptions of how she should act, but that were unnatural and damaging in this independently minded queen. Only in their last moments together did the two remember something of their "real" selves: as Aeneas prepared to leave, Dido turned her back on him, forcing herself to look away rather than watch him leave. Aeneas, in beautiful symmetry, forced himself to maintain his gaze on her, walking slowly backwards in a final farewell as he removed himself from her life.
The success of the presentation of the two lovers owed much to the naturalness with which the actors handled the classical material. In a particularly emotional part of 5.1, the two suddenly "relapsed" into their native Latin, the English tongue with which they had been communicating insufficient to convey the intensity of their thoughts. What could have become a gimmick became an inspired means of heightening the passion of the scene, forcing the audience to respond emotionally to tone rather than words.
MacDonald's interest in early modern staging resulted in some evocative variations on original practices. The company included two male mezzo-sopranos, who provided musical accompaniment throughout, reminiscent of the child company the play was originally written for. The bare set was backed by a long yellow curtain, which was periodically pulled aside to reveal elaborate "discovery spaces," including a lavish jungle in which Ascanius slept, the cave, and Dido's luxurious bedroom, brought forward for the final scene. However, the curtain itself proved an awkward and cumbersome device: actors struggled to find the gaps or draw it correctly, thereby often making it more of a distraction than a benefit.
But while MacDonald's production drew effective performances out of the central lovers and gave the text due reverence, it suffered from a lack of invention and pace. The play felt tediously long at three hours, and the pace dragged as a result of the lack of attention to supporting players. Aeneas' fellow Trojans were scarcely individualized, while the soap opera of the bickering gods, presented as superficial and petty, felt subsidiary and largely irrelevant. The productions quest for textual fidelity was in this sense its weakest point: the underdeveloped subplots took up too much stage time, interrupting momentum without adding any dramatic interest. Some tragic dignity was found in Obi Abili's Iarbus and Sian Brooke's quietly moving Anna, but the emphasis remained firmly on the powerful performance of Hille's Dido. In her final moments, she piled her bed sheets and Aeneas's confiscated oars into a makeshift pyre, sat quietly atop it, and poured fuel over herself. Striking a match, the auditorium plunged into darkness. This calm death was the fitting conclusion to an intimate production that sacrificed the rest of the play to the story of the doomed queen. While a mixed success, then, MacDonald's Dido found a contemporary relevance in the play while also adequately meeting critics' demands for a straight reading. These demands met, one hopes that future directors will now feel freer to take liberties with text and interpretation as this neglected play re-enters the repertory.
PETER KIRWAN, University of Warwick