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  • Eddie Hewitt

Dido Queen of Carthage

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

This rapturous RSC production of Dido Queen of Carthage brings along a superb collection of cultural connections. A Southern African / Chinese actress who plays a powerful, beautiful, North African Queen opposite a Trojan runaway with a Scottish accent, with ancient Olympian gods and goddesses in the wings, mingling amongst a terrestrial audience in a quintessentially Elizabethan English theatre. The play opens with an old, white god (Jupiter) in a white suite with a white beard, clearly omnipotent as he kicks up a storm and then calms it again. And then we have a sultry, blonde curvaceous Venus in a stunning red dress. She seems to appear everywhere in the auditorium, spreading her love.

Venus, looking for shells, played by Ellie Beaven

Classicist Edith Hall recently commented on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour that Marlowe’s Dido is “The greatest renaissance role written for a woman ever”. High praise indeed for this dramatic creation and for Marlowe the theatrical genius.

The RSC’s production is fittingly magnificent. The absolute highlight is a stellar performance by Chipo Chung, who is evidently thrilled to be making her RSC debut, in her own words, ‘on African soil and with African soul’. Chung is simply mesmerising. She commanded the stage and all present with her regal brilliance, clearly relishing every aspect of her role as the Carthaginian Queen. First powerful and confident, then excited, then vulnerable and then rendered miserable. Finally, Dido is destroyed, physically, though she survives majestically in spirit.

The ethereal Dido (Chipo Chung)

Confronting her destiny

Men cannot match Dido. Marlowe thus invokes the gods to make her vulnerable at an early stage. Venus instructs her son Cupid to prick Dido with his dart. A syringe is used in the RSC version. This could lead to something wonderful but ultimately the match-making ends in tragedy. Why do the gods meddle so?!

Ben Goffe as Cupid, messing things up

The RSC blurb describes Dido as a ‘strong and brilliant woman’. This is true for much of the play, but sadly, Dido’s final act is self-destructive. Power and despair combine in a horrifying scene which at first seems like submission to the heaviness of the heart, but can also be interpreted as an affirmation of female strength in opposition to a cruel, patriarchal universe.

In contrast, Sandy Grierson is a touch dour in his role as Aeneas. Whether it’s Grierson or Aeneas, his soul never quite seems prepared for love in this story. Let’s blame this on the fall of Troy. Jupiter has emasculated him, of course, but Aeneas eventually withdraws from a relationship that most men could only dream off. And leading up to the traumatic ending, Aeneas has jumped back on board ship and sailed off to Italy. So much for male commitment.

Aeneas (Sandy Grierson), humble and seeking succour

Marlowe probably had mixed feelings about the Dido he created. Admiration, but also wry smiles, perhaps even a few tears. Here is a woman who founded a nation but one who is brought to ruin by the whims of the gods and a magical love potion. Marlowe probably pities Aeneas, first for falling at Troy but subsequently for failing to take advantage of the finest of second chances ever offered. The RSC has captured all of this brilliantly.

For heaven's sake, man, your Queen has given you her crown

Breaking the golden rule

Never work with children or animals, as the saying goes in show business. Within minutes of opening, Aeneas saves his young son Ascanius from drowning. Cupid becomes a changeling and replaces the boy child with terrible consequences. And then the Trojans drag a wild boar across the stage, complete with arrow in its belly. A goat is sacrificed later in the play. But these are asides.

Aeneas, Ascanius and victim (felled by a genuine arrow)

The Theatrical experience

The performance was both breath-taking and inspiring, if that is even physically possible. The English language really is so much fun. The whole outing was uplifting. A trip to Stratford-on-Avon. The Swan Theatre, on the banks of the River Avon, with swans swimming along gracefully. A secondary playhouse, next to the main RSC theatre, but with more timber and a more intimate space, creating an enchanting atmosphere. All simply delightful.

The Swan, one of my favourite cultural venues

The magnificent wooden auditorium at the Swan

For this production, there was a sand pit instead of boards, and a blanket of rain to the rear of the stage. The Elizabethan dialogue and craft was exquisite. Both traditional and entertaining. A play with boundless passion. Captivating, dazzling performances. A dramatic, make-believe world. And yet an opportunity to reflect on the events on stage, the characters, their relationships and how they make us think of the people we know and the things that happen in our own lives.

Chipo Chung: An African on African sand

This was a magical theatrical experience, with an enchanting performance from a stunning entrant onto the RSC stage, a fine supporting cast and a hugely prestigious theatre. A triumph for the director Kimberley Sykes. A harrowing drama, but a most wondrous occasion.

© Eddie Hewitt 2017

All photos © the RSC

Other links:

Royal Shakespeare Company

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