Until recently the House Of St Barnabas was a refuge for homeless women. Fronting onto Greek Street, in the heart of London’s Soho, the building’s chapel will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time queuing to gain entry to the Borderline. It’s one of those quirky city sights that holds endless appeal and I can’t be the only one who’s longed for the opportunity to nose about inside.
Well, now inventive site-specific specialists Angels in the Architecture are providing the opportunity. This company has previously produced work in the disused Aldwych tube station and the undercroft of the (imminently reopening) Roundhouse. Fond of staging neglected plays in unusual spaces, they have this time opted to dust down Christopher Marlowe’s rarely performed tragedy Dido Queen of Carthage.
Upon entering the chapel, crimson-lipsticked men and women in 1920s eveningwear plied audience members with wine and handed out playing cards that would “decide our fate.” The whole thing felt too arch and self-conscious to stand any chance of being successful. Fortunately this uneasiness was only momentary and once the narrative warmed up, both cast and audience appeared to relax.
The play is performed in promenade, so the audience are soon ushered out of the chapel and through into a central courtyard and, from there, on into the building’s historic rooms. Marlowe’s play is a curious piece of work: passionate and brutal with odd bursts of comedy. Dido, the Libyan Queen in Virgil’s Aeneid, is enchanted by the Gods, who in carelessly playing with mortals’ lives, set of chain of events that can only lead to a tragic conclusion.
Dido benefits from a committed cast, including Sarah Thom as the eponymous queen and an intense Jake Maskall as Aeneas, the man she is doomed to fall in love with. But, not surprisingly, where Rebecca McCutcheon’s piece really excels is in the way it uses this unique space. As the audience is escorted from room to room, it is frequently possible to glimpse the ‘Gods’ up on fire escapes or rooftops, or suddenly appearing at windows. When Dido and Aeneas are caught in a storm this is achieved by having water poured down from above as they lean through an open window. Every part of the building is used with imagination, even the refuge’s residential quarters.
This is perhaps not the most dramtically intricate version of Marlowe’s work you’ll ever see but certainly one of the most creative. Angels in the Architecture understand that most people have a childlike fascination with secret rooms and forbidden spaces, and use that to superb effect.