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Dido, Queen of Carthage

Christopher Marlowe's rarely performed play at The Swan, Stratford is a revelation.

Chipo Chung as Dido, Queen of Carthage, The Swan, Stratford. Production photos by Topher McGrillis, (c) RSC

Christopher Marlowe’s rarely-performed tragedy Dido, Queen of Carthage, a play not high on school or university curriculums, is a revelation, with echoes of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. It’s essentially the love story of Dido and shipwrecked refugee Aeneas.

Jupiter (Nicholas Day)

This darkly humorous play, adapted straight from Virgil’s Aeneid, opens with the eccentric and neurotic gods who oversee this human drama in modern dress. Jupiter, a commanding Nicholas Day in white suit to match his flowing white locks, drools over beautiful half-naked Ganymede – Andro Cowperthwaite; while highly-strung  goddess of love Venus – the excellent comedic actress Ellie Beaven – is furious that Jupiter is neglecting her son, Aeneas, who is lost at sea.

Dido (Chip Chung) comforting Aeneas’ young son Ascanius (Samuel Littel)

We go back in time to the ancient city of Carthage, now Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Designer Ti Green cleverly transforms The Swan into an exotic African seaside city with the stage carpeted in sand, a stunning cascading waterfall and pulsating African drum beats.

Ben Goffe as Cupid with Ellie Beaven’s Venus

Warring goddesses Venus and Juno join forces to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas. In Kimberley Sykes’ inventive, quirky directorial debut Ben Joffe’s Cupid, doesn’t shoot her with a bow and arrow, but an hypodermic needle, while disguised as her young son. The Queen’s suitor, Iarbas, is understandably rather irked by his lover’s sudden change of heart – an entertaining and exuberant performance by Daniel York.

Their love is all too brief. Before long Aeneas – an eloquent Sandy Grierson, who was in Maria Aberg’s Dr Faustus at the RSC last year – has packed his bags to leave and sail off to found Rome in Italy, as instructed by quirky messenger of the gods, Hermes.

Will Bliss as Hermes

Chipo Chung brings an earthy intelligence and raw intensity to the African queen. Amber James is excellent, too, as Dido’s sister, Anna. Their close relationship is touching –particularly their girly excitement when Dido is in the first flush of love and later, when she rips her hair out in empathy at her heart-broken sister’s distress. But as the genre predicts worse is yet to come…

Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) and Dido (Chipo Chung)

Sisters: Dido (Chipo Chung) and Anna (Amber James)

Muddy verdict: A fascinating watch with a great cast. It’s exciting to see Marlowe’s underrated, little-known play about the founder and first queen of Carthage, unearthed and staged with such great panache. There’s much to admire in both the dramatisation and the poetry. But you may need to read up on the Greek gods and Virgil’s Aeneid to make sense of it all. 

Dido, Queen of Carthage runs at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon until Sat Oct 28, rsc.org.uk

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