Review: Dido of Carthage

Review: Dido of Carthage

At the RSC

Something visceral shoots way down my spine when I hear 425-year-old lines spoken from a stage.

Call it thesbo-shock. Call it history. But definitely call it something from another time.

Christopher Marlowe’s first play, Dido of Carthage, is as old as cold water. It was slapped on the boards about 1592 and he went on to die too young in a pub brawl, leaving pal Bill Shakespeare Esq to pick up the quill and change English theatre forever.

Marlowe's early effort is now stomping up and down at Stratford’s Swan Theatre.  And the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of its Rome season, has created a queen transformed and eaten by love. Trojan hero Aeneas, right off the pages of the Virgil’s Aenid, tumbles ashore after fleeing his fallen city. Queen Dido, in her splendour and majesty, is swept off her Libyan feet. But the torn hero is destined by the gods to form a new Troy in Italy.  She is left bereft.

This is a story, still powerful after all these centuries, of love, loss and destiny.

I doubt if anyone, including me, had read or seen Dido of Carthage before. It is new and fresh and  Dido, played by Chipo Chung, flings diamond-hard words from her throne as she's enveloped by passion but felled by abandonment. It is truly a grand performance, presaging Shakespeare’s bid 15  years  later about another North African queen called Cleopatra.

Sandy Grierson’s Aeneas is stolid, a bit flat, but ripped apart by love and the power of fate, especially when he’s told in no uncertain terms that  Jupiter is gong to toss his thunderbolts from his Olympic pram if he doesn’t sail off to Italy ASAP  to build a new Troy. But Grierson adds gristle to the production as he recounts to  an awestruck regal court (and us) how babies swam in rivers of Trojan blood as the Greeks massacred the city.

There is a dubious moment or two in this production. A video feed onto a huge screen is cackhanded and mis-placed. And director  Kimberley Sykes makes the questionable decision to keep in Virgil’s Latin lines when the lovers have a mega-tiff the size of Africa. Maybe an audience from the 1590’s could have clocked it. I doubt if many at The Swan had a clue what was going on.

But actress Chung holds it together. It is an evocative and powerful performance, a voice from the past, from Marlowe’s pen, and from the tomb of Carthage.- words from 425 years ago that are able to kickstart and engage a modem audience.

At the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 28 October. Box office: 01789 403493. Website

By Richard Lutz