You could say that Dido, Queen of Carthage comes to us on the express recommendation of Hamlet. For when the Prince refers to "an excellent play" and asks the Player King to deliver a speech about Priam's death and Pyrrhus running amok in Troy, it's to an affectionate pastiche of this early Marlowe tragedy that he is treated. Shakespeare parody is now, of course, hugely more familiar than the original verse it was guying. The latter gets a rare and welcome hearing, though, in Tim Carroll's modern-dress production of Dido, Queen of Carthage at the Globe.
The play, which was probably written in 1585, is like a chamber of fascinating pre-echoes. Sometimes Marlowe can be spotted anticipating himself, as when Dido says of Aeneas "If he forsake me not, I never die,/For in his looks I see eternity,/And he'll make me immortal with a kiss" - which looks forward to Faustus's beseeching of Helen of Troy. It's clear, too, that Shakespeare was deeply influenced by the play. In a notable addition to its Virgilian source, Marlowe's drama starts with a homoerotic framing device: Jupiter dallying with that "female wanton boy", Ganymede, whom he bribes with jewels, to the disgust of his wife, Juno. A love dispute amongst the gods over a boy and their capricious intervention in human affairs surface again in A Midsummer Night's Dream, while the conflict between love and imperial duty prefigures Antony and Cleopatra.
Does the play stand up, though, in its own right? After watching Carroll's production, I still don't feel qualified to say, for this was a staging that seemed to do the piece few favours. At the opposite extreme from its work with original practices (single-sex casts; authentic costumes etc), the Globe rightly makes experiments with bringing a modern aesthetic to bear in that Elizabethan space. Here Carroll and his designer Laura Hopkins have converted the acting area into a modern children's playground with the gods and mortals dangling from a curved climbing frame or whizzing down a steel slide that cascades from the minstrels' gallery to the stage. Cupid fires plastic arrows at Rakie Ayola's Dido. Both he and Aeneas's little son are represented by dolls. When the central pair vow love, celebratory bubbles are blown. When Dido throws herself into the flames of the pyre at the end, a sparkler fizzes.
The prime reason for the playground conceit is to signal the juvenile cruelty of the gods. But the infantilising effect here is so enveloping as to be indiscriminately reductive. Despite the driven intensity of Will Keen's Aeneas and the sinuous witty passion of Ms Ayola's Dido, it is hard to muster the pity for the human protagonists that they deserve. The bubbling, bony sounds of Claire van Kampen's music provide a beguiling accompaniment to a less-than-haunting show.
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