Dido, Queen of Carthage @ Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

cast list
Obi Abili, Mark Bonnar, Sian Brooke, Anastasia Hille, Siobhan Redmond

directed by
James MacDonald
Dido Queen of Carthage is not Christopher Marlowe’s finest hour. Compared with the magnificent Doctor Faustus and even the raggedy sprawl of Tamburlaine, it doesn’t easily engage.

Considering the narrative drive and excitement of Virgil’s Aeneid, on which it’s based, Marlowe’s poem is pretty inert dramatically. Its strength lies in the muscularity and stark beauty of its language.

In his new production in the Cottesloe, James MacDonald does nothing to tackle the play’s inherent weaknesses, instead slowing everything to a pausy, lugubrious pace.
Aeneas’ long monologue outlining the fall of Troy (which shadows Virgil’s treatment closely) is a particular problem. Mark Bonnar’s earnest hero is made to stretch the narrative out and soon lulls us into a state of complete indifference, despite the harrowing scenes he describes.

There’s something of the school hall about Tobias Hoheisel’s sets and Moritz Junge’s costumes, a suggestion perhaps of too much time spent working in German opera houses. All is drab and flat, save for a series of mini inner-stages, glimpses of exciting little environments, which add a degree of visual depth.

Anastasia Hille plays the tragic queen with televisual naturalness and, as such, her performance is flecked with truthfulness, but these nuggets pass by fleetingly. It is all at odds with Marlowe’s great verse which is impertinently mangled and spat out.

Things reach an all-time low with the argument scene between Venus and Juno, Siobhan Redmond’s Caledonian love goddess and Susan Engel’s aged consort battling it out for the acting dishonours. If only they’d put some oomph into it, it could have at least been funny.

There is no sense of commitment and what contribution movement advisors Steven Hoggett and Imogen Knight (of Frantic Assembly) have made is a mystery. The cast reflect Marlowe’s dramatic inertia with a sense of almost total physical and vocal detachment.

This is not what we expect from a National Theatre, not even one that dares to fail. It is a long, slow three hours (forget the two and half stated in the programme), studded with moments of am-dram awfulness.

For anyone wanting to acquaint themselves with this beautiful but flawed play, this woeful production can hardly be recommended.

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