Review: Dido, Queen of Carthage

Dido, Queen of Carthage, directed by Perry Mills for Edward’s Boys, Levi Fox Hall, King Edward VI School, Statford-upon-Avon, 21 September 2013

Two theatrical highlights of my lamentably brief visit to the UK were The Book of Mormon in London’s West End and Dido, Queen of Carthage in Stratford-upon-Avon. Though composed over 400 years apart, these productions had surprisingly much in common: both plays exploit the innocence and naivety of youth to belie biting topical satire and mask social commentary on taboo subjects. The Book of Mormon, a musical satire that debuted on Broadway in 2011, targets American religious zealotry and cultural imperialism in the context of African famine, poverty, war, and AIDS. Dido, an adaptation of the story from Virgil’s Aeneid interspersed with song and staged by a boys’ company around 1588, tackles the (then as now) touchy topics of unbridled and unconventional sexual desire, female rulership and political influence, suicide, and the capriciousness of the gods. I like to think that Dido’s authors, the notorious Elizabethan scoundrels and troublemakers Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, might appreciate comparison with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, infamous creators of South Park and authors of The Book of Mormon.

One of the chief pleasures of witnessing an Edward’s Boys performance is that it consistently and forcefully repudiates long-standing assumptions about non-Shakespearean drama and the boy actors charged with reanimating these centuries-old scripts. We are now so out of touch with the Elizabethan tradition that we wrongfully assume boy actors cannot convincingly portray adults or possess the memory, skill, and — in the age of the X-Box and PlayStation — the attention-span to be taken seriously by a modern audience. After all, didn’t W.C. Fields famously advise his fellow actors to “never work with animals or children”? Under the skilful direction of Perry Mills, Edward’s Boys display an effortless professionalism, maturity, and sophistication all-too-often absent in adult companies.

Prior to the development of purpose-build theatres in Elizabethan London, professional acting companies performed using whatever space was available and permissible — halls in great houses, inn-yards and public squares, and at court. Edward’s Boys’ performance of Dido continued this hallowed tradition for their performance of Dido, transforming the sporting arena of Levi Fox Hall into a banqueting house. Also in keeping with Elizabethan conventions was the decision to dress the cast (with the exception of the female roles) in gym clothes, a nod and wink to the pretense of the drama — schoolboys literally “playing” in a sports hall — and an elegant metaphor for the competitions, in love and war, that drive the play. The seamless integration of songs from Benjamin Britten’s Friday Afternoons, re-enacting the purpose for which they were originally written (Britten composed them for students of his older brother, then headmaster of Clive House School), had a similar effect, reinforcing the “schoolboy” motif and flaunting the choral and musical abilities for which Elizabethan boys’ companies were renowned. The audience watching Jupiter (Will Lindsay) give Hermes (Pascal Vogiaridis) an off-the-ground “wedgie” before launching him off the stage laughed hysterically, though, I suspect, tempered by less pleasurable schoolyard memories for some.

The performances of the rest of the ensemble were as impressive as Hermes’ agility (and, evidently, high pain threshold). Though never made sexually explicit, Jupiter’s relationship with Ganymede (Nick Jones) found tasteful physical expression in the playful ease with which he picked up the smaller boy, whose mimicking of the illicit affair with two bare-chested Action Man figurines hinted at his complicity. The jealousy of both Venus (David Fairbairn) and Juno (Hamish de Nett) were palpable, with the latter’s rage seething behind angled glasses. Joe Pocknell played an impish Cupid, cruelly relishing the ridiculous — and ridiculously salacious — advances of the elderly Nurse (James Wilkinson), an episode that had me in stitches. Daniel Wilkinson gave conviction to Dido’s hopeful expectations of love and her despair when rejected by Aeneas (Barnaby Bos), whose conflicted loyalties were reflected visually by constantly alternating his position around the vast performance-space. Iarbus (Finlay Hatch) played the spurned former favourite, relegated metaphorically to the back of Dido’s mind and physically to the edge of the hall. Even cast members playing minor roles worked together admirably — literally coming together when forming human pyramids alongside other displays of acrobatic teamwork to represent physical structures, such as an arch and Dido’s funeral pyre (ingeniously accomplished with the aid of black fabric and red LED lights).

The success of their performance of Dido relies as much upon the quality of Marlowe and Nashe’s words as the impressive ability of the Edward’s Boys cast to bring them vividly to life. As a play, Dido is neither easy nor popular to perform, and critics routinely dismiss it as a drama unworthy of the effort. In 1887, George Saintsbury called Dido “the worst thing [Marlowe] ever did,” and, according to an anonymous reviewer in 1885, it “wants a good deal to make it into a substantial play.” Even modern commentators, more guarded in their dismissal of the play as an inferior Marlowe work, frequently excuse Dido as a Nashe “collaboration” (that is, “corruption”) and as an “early undergraduate effort” composed during his time at Cambridge. While the extent of Nashe’s contribution remains undetermined, scholars now agree that Dido is probably not Marlowe’s first play. Successful productions such as this will doubtless spur academics to critically reassess the play’s place in the Marlowe canon, and to appreciate just how effective the (otherwise neglected) plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are when staged with humour, imagination, and — let’s face it — talent.

 

Dr Brett D. Hirsch
University of Western Australia