Dido Queen of Carthage

Culture Editor RIVKAH BROWN feels that the Marlowe Society’s latest offering falls a little short of expectations.

dido queen of cathage emmanuel college georgia wagstaff marlowe society rivkah brown

Emmanuel College Chapel, 8pm, Tue 12th – Fri 15th Nov, £16/8 

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Dido Queen of Carthage charts perhaps the most famous unrequited love story of all time: published in 1594, Marlowe’s play loosely adapts the Aeneid. The sheer compression of Marlowe’s adaptation makes for a dramatic maelstrom whose intensity is off the Richter scale – an intensity that is done justice to by this production, the inaugural event of The Marlowe Festival, by the grandeur of its setting at the Emmanuel College Chapel.

The candlelit solemnity of this religious space gave a fitting sense of its original Jacobean staging, offering a taste of what we might expect from the soon-to-open Sam Wanamaker Theatre. Indeed, it became increasingly clear that dramaturgical concerns were high in director Michael Oakley’s mind: one of the greatest delights of this play is its incorporation of dance interludes, which gave some emotional respite in place of a traditional intermission. Far from than swamping the performers, great use of the space was made throughout the performance (at one point Hermes even emerged from up at the organ), and during the finale became particularly instrumental.

Though generally the play’s strongpoint, a less convincing aspect of the staging was the use of paper dolls to stand in for Cupid and Ascanius – though Andrew Room ventriloquised both quite confidently, Cupid in particular is crying out for dramatisation: mischievous, camp, impish, the character requires nuances I couldn’t help but feel weren’t brought by a papier-mâché doll. The performance is also accompanied by excerpts from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas: though at first, its buoyancy awkwardly lifts scenes that want emotional weight, its dramatic force becomes fully apparent as the play reaches its climax.

It is hard to feel that Georgia Wagstaff fully fleshes out the jealous sexual magnetism of Venus, nor her maternal protectiveness over Aeneas. Towards the beginning of the play, over-emphatic delivery on the part of Venus and Jupiter (James Evans) felt especially clumsy due to Marlowe’s proclivity for rhyming couplets, though this was gradually ironed out. Details of characterisation also occasionally felt slightly off-beat: though marginal, Mark Milligan’s Ganymede was more boyish and less sylph-like than one might expect from the pederastic idol, whose toying with Jupiter at the play’s opening failed to tread successfully the tightrope between playfulness and flirtation.

Far more successful was the sexual tension generated between the play’s doomed lovers, and which seemed to spontaneously ignite on the moment of Aeneas (Julian Mack) entering Dido’s court. Mary Galloway brought a complexity of sentiment (doubt/lust/fear/shame) to a woman driven to such extremes of desire that ‘lovesick’ doesn’t quite cover it. Her sensitive, thoughtful performance was fiercely true to the self-conscious lover, her obsession gradually intensifying to the point of delusional neurosis: ‘If he forsake me not, I’ll never die’.

The play is underpinned by two extremely strong supporting roles in the form of Iarbas (Joey Akubeze), Dido’s suitor, and Anna (Olivia Emden), her sister. The strength of their performances lies in their ability to transition between high and low, from petty sarcasm (such as both demonstrate upon Dido and Aeneas’ post-coital emergence from the cave) to the desperation of scorned lovers. Though ancillary to the plot, the pair insist on the pathos of their own love stories, and by the play’s end, our hearts are as much with them as with our heroine.

Ultimately, the play is deflated by its ending – Aeneas’ sudden departure, though we know it from myth to be a narrative necessity, seemed abrupt and disjunctive. ‘I can hardly go and yet I may not stay’ sounds in Mack’s mouth insufficiently tortured to appear credible. This is somewhat redeemed, however, by the play’s appreciation that Dido’s only possible reaction to such horrifying news is wordless: more is said by her standing silent than by any of her entreaties or maledictions, as Purcell bespeaks her last lament.