Dido, Queen of Carthage, Swan Theatre, Stratford, until October 28.
The RSC’s Roman season is drawing to a close and they have boldly chosen Marlowe’s rarely seen Dido as one of the final acts, with RSC debutante Chipo Chung (pictured) in the lead role.
The plot’s major premise, interfering Olympian gods playing with mortal emotions, as usual, tests the patience of realists, but that aside this is a powerful and emotionally wrenching production.
The sheer ingenuity and attention to detail in Kimberley Sykes' production is breath-taking.
Looking at an empty stage before the start this reviewer noticed a striking woman in red sitting on the ledge of the balcony opposite. She begins to sway and stretch languorously. Behind her there is movement and someone is running. The wings on his head incongruous among the Berghaus and Boden.
He is wearing Hermes, a dead give-away. Suddenly on stage, a patrician figure in white is staring intently at a member of the audience in the second row. After an age and a flicker of a grin his gaze bores into another unfortunate. A silver-clad Mediterranean woman glides in from the back of the auditorium. The musicians who appear to have been warming up with noodling jazz begin a more insistent beat and we are transported to their world; the magic has begun.
Then one is aware the stage is not bare after all but entirely covered in fine grey sand. This simple device becomes an ever present feature of the play. It clings to the performers’ wet bodies and faces, scarring and disfiguring, it sifts through their hands to summon rain, and it becomes the ashes of a corpse. It is kicked and thrown and clung to and burrowed into.
Its elemental qualities anchor the shipwrecked Aeneas and his crew to Africa. Despite the arguments about co-authorship of some of Shakespeare’s plays, the heroic blank verse of Marlowe sounds different and is delivered with clarity and force by the players.
Sandy Grierson’s manipulated Aeneas gives a bloody description of the fall of Troy, passionate and moving.
Chipo Chung imbues the Queen of Carthage with the raw emotions of a woman hopelessly besotted, insanely jealous, vengeful when betrayed, bereft when abandoned. She is ably supported by the performance of Amber James’ Anna as her conflicted sister.
Every facet of this production re-enforces the quality of the RSC brand, from the lighting and music to the hummus and tagines in the sumptuous banquet scene.
From the cast comes comic timing, physical dexterity and playful choreography.
The creative team supply dead and dying creatures, sails that become curtains that become a funeral pyre through magical stage craft.
It is a genuine pleasure to bear witness to the best in English theatre unfolding with deceptive ease in the heart of Stratford.
Photos by Topher McGrillis