Review: Dido Queen of Carthage

Ted Loveday 13 November 2013

It’s an old story. Trojan hero flees his city as it burns at the hands of the Greeks. Shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, his mother Venus causes the local queen to fall in love and rescue him. Mutual affections blossom and he pledges never to leave her, but then destiny calls him away to found Rome, upon which she kills herself in sorrow.

In staging Christopher Marlowe’s first play Dido, Queen of Carthage (c.1587) as the centrepiece of the Cambridge Marlowe Festival, professional director Michael Oakley has pulled out all the stops. This gorgeous production takes place in Emmanuel College Chapel, with silken cloaks and assorted other elaborate costumes, Elizabethan dance interludes, and a talented string section accompanying the action with snippets from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It is not entirely historically-informed: Aeneas’ men wear modern combat gear, and his fleet is represented by a toy battleship. But the function of this is simply to relieve the Baroque heaviness a little, and the overall effect is not anachronistic but strangely charming.

The acting was some of the best you will see in Cambridge. Aeneas’ gripping account of the fall of Troy and his escape, a lengthy monologue and one that did credit to Julian Mack’s skill as a storyteller, a skill that was present throughout his performance. The boy Ascanius and the child-god Cupid are portrayed by eerie dolls, a touch that adds to the curiously haunting character of the piece, with the brilliant Andrew Room as puppeteer. Issy Kettle and Olivia Emden’s light-hearted touches as the Nurse and Anna respectively gave a great deal of entertainment, whilst many of the cast were extraordinary singers, in particular Hermes (Pat Dunachie) and Venus (Georgia Wagstaff).

Above all, though, Mary Galloway is simply stunning as Dido. Dido is one of the most complex women in literature, and Galloway absolutely did her justice. Was she being tossed to and fro at the mercy of gods and men, or did she remain a strong self-determined queen? Was she to blame for her own miseries, or manipulated by a cruel world? Sometimes Galloway played coquettish, sometimes aloof and regal, sometimes she wailed with rage and sorrow. Even if it were just her, this play would still be worth seeing.

The chapel venue is not ideal acoustically, meaning some of Marlowe’s beautiful pentameter lines are drowned and unheard in the space if an actor forgets to enunciate. Nor is it ideal visually, with large choir stalls blocking those members of the cast who are sitting or kneeling or playing on the floor or simply performing at the other end of the nave. But all this is outweighed many times over by the unique atmosphere and compelling storytelling. The last night on Saturday will be a black-tie affair in Senate House – those who have tickets should think themselves very lucky.