While there are many excellent reasons to read Virgil’s Aeneid from cover to cover, more than once, the fourth book of the great Roman epic (Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas and subsequent suicide) has perhaps inspired more artistic reactions than the whole of the rest of the poem put together in art, music, and literature. Christopher Marlowe’s beautifully detailed, erudite retelling of Dido’s fatal passion draws on Aeneid Book 1 as well as the seminal Book 4, plus Ovid’s moving and often witty Heroides, to produce a sensitive, rounded love story powered throughout by original classical sources, all gleaming with the fresh, lyrically romantic firepower of Marlowe’s verse. Aeneas, fleeing Troy, is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, where his mother Venus decides it would be terribly helpful if Dido were to fall in love with him, just so she can get his ships mended in order to convey the hero on to Italy, where fate requires his presence. However, these self-serving immortal wiles provoke a storm of raw human emotions which, when finally thwarted by an unmoved destiny, ensures no one survives intact (and many don’t survive at all: we end up with a positive heap of bodies on stage).
Director Kimberley Sykes opens proceedings with a cruel party on Olympus, the gods behaving (or misbehaving) with callous disregard for themselves and one another to brash music which veers between deconstructed jazz and rock guitar. While we get off to a literally jarring note, one lovely touch is that the gods can conjure, adjust or extinguish music throughout with a swirl of their fingers, and can manipulate light in the same way. The stage is filled with grey sand, projecting far out into the audience, while a recessed section at the back soon shows us, through sheets of lashing rain, Aeneas’ sailors lit by flashes of lightning as they cling to ropes. Ti Green’s elegant, functional design thus provides plenty of open playing space, as well as opportunities for magically beautiful effects with light (sometimes combined with water) by Ciaran Bagnall. While the gods are in contemporary evening gear (Venus gets sparkly purple trainers and a leopardskin coat for her Tyrian huntress disguise), mortal costumes look generally classical, with the Carthaginians in loose, flowing gowns with large African prints, which they lend to the ragged Trojans as an early sign of friendship.
The cast are not smooth, but we see truly impressive central performances from Sandy Grierson as a thrillingly emotional, endlessly pessimistic Aeneas and Chipo Chung as a poised, noble and yet fragile Dido, whose descent into desperate, doubt-riven passion is as convincing as it is heartbreaking. Tom McCall is nicely brisk and determined as Achates, Aeneas’ trusted (and ever practical) companion at arms, and Amber James is a poignantly cheerful Anna, whose heartwarming smile becomes more fixed as her own dreams and plans fall by the wayside. Bridgitta Roy’s sashaying, vengeful Juno and Ellie Beaven’s manipulative, needy Venus balance each other nicely. Sykes requires incessant striding around the stage and lots of blokeishly tactile physicality from her cast, which can irritate after a while, but energy levels stay generously high. When her characters are allowed to employ stillness, particularly in the tragic final scenes, a new intensity is achieved. Still, I found my tears came at the beginning: Aeneas’ cry of anguish to his disguised mother as she leaves him once again, a line I can’t read in Latin without crying either.
- Rating: Three
- At the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until 28 October 2017. Box office: 01789 403 493