When the Swan Theatre was opened by the RSC in 1986 one of its stated purposes was to stage plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and over the years I have witnessed some wonderful productions of works that I would otherwise have never have had a chance of seeing in real life. However, you don’t expect plays by Christopher Marlowe to come into that category. I’ve seen both parts of Tamburlaine, Edward II at least twice, The Jew of Malta three times and countless productions of Dr Faustus. Nevertheless, the company’s current production of Dido, Queen of Carthage, while not the only recent opportunity to see this little known work, is the first chance I’ve had, and while I wasn’t blown away by the performance, I am very glad to have been able to add it to the plays I can say I know on the stage as well as on the page.
Placing Dido in terms of Marlowe’s canon has always been a touchy subject amongst academics. It wasn’t published until 1594, a year after the playwright’s death, and there are no contemporary records of performances during his lifetime. Most commonly it has been thought to date to his time at Cambridge, mainly because it could be seen as an exercise in translation/adaptation of works he would have studied during that period. This means that we would be looking at a date of around 1585. However, at least one scholar I work with sees it as more mature than that and puts it alongside Faustus, three years later. Three years may not seem much, but in the career of a poet who was developing in his art as quickly as Marlowe was it does make a real difference to the way in which a work is evaluated. Is it an apprentice piece, a curiosity of only academic interest, or rather a mature work deserving of a considered and fully professional staging?
One of the reasons that Dido is so often connected with Marlowe’s student days is the simliarity in stucture to the classical texts he would have been reading, especially in respect of the framing of the work by the appearance of the gods. It’s always interesting to see how a modern production of a Greek or Roman drama tackles this because the concept of a god in the classical world was so different to our own or even to that of Marlowe, who was studying for an MA, which in his time meant studying for the Church. Classical gods, while having very substantial powers also have very substantial personalities and when this gets translated into twenty-first century terms they can frequently be portrayed as the sort of entitled brat you want to see given a short sharp shock. I thought about this quite a lot while watching the current production where Jupiter became a white bearded lecher lusting after Ganymede and Venus a petulant young woman prone to tantrums when she didn’t get her own way. In fact, there may have been cultural references that I was missing because Cupid (very well played by Ben Goffe) in his pristine white shirt and red shorts, was definitely meant to make us think of Prince George. The overall effect, however, is to make the audience laugh and while I can see why a director might feel that this is the only way to approach the problem in a modern production, for me it undermines the very real power that a classical or classically trained audience would have recognised that the gods wielded over even such significant mortals as the Queen of Carthage. Once Dido has been stung by Cupid’s arrows she has no option but to do everything in her considerable power to prevent Aeneas leaving Carthage and moving on to Italy in order to found Rome. There is tragedy is this: a commanding woman being forced to behave in a way which strips her of every shred of dignity. However, if she is seen as the puppet of someone you have just laughed at then unless the actress is careful it is too easy for her to appear more as a love-sick teenager ridiculous in her determination to keep a lover by transparent wiles that ten years on she will cringe over and which an audience cringes over now. For me, despite the best efforts of Chipo Chung, too often the RSC’s production swung this way. I’m not certain what the answer is to this. There are some Greek plays where the gods only appear as a type of prologue and can at a pinch be omitted but as they are active participants in the plot line here you couldn’t take that approach with Dido. Has anyone seen a production of this or a similar play which they thought worked in that respect? And if so, how was it achieved?