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A CurtainUp London Review
Dido Queen of Carthage
Angels in the Architecture is a theatre company which concentrates on producing rarely-performed classics in even more rare places. Here, they revive their 2006 production of Dido Queen of Carthage in the Royal State Apartments at Kensington Palace. Most aptly for a play with a queen as eponymous heroine, the site is imbued with royal female history (including the residence of Queen Victoria, Queen Anna, Queen Caroline and Diana, Princess of Wales). The audience can scarce miss this point when, as they walk the long pathway entrance to the palace, a silhouette of a regally attired woman enlarges and diminishes in a tall window.
Written by Marlowe when still at school, this little-performed play at times seems like a faithful translation of the first half of Virgil's Aeneid. Set soon after the fall or Troy, Aeneas (Jakes Maskell) and other Trojan survivors have fled their homeland following the decrees of fate to establish a new city elsewhere: the future Rome. Shipwrecked and disheartened, they arrive on the shores of Carthage. Venus (Cassandra Friend) secures her son Aeneas a welcome by inflaming the queen Dido (Sarah Thom) with a passionate love for the Trojan. Venus, however, does not bank on Aeneas returning that love and thus endangering the entire fateful mission. As the gods callously manipulate the humans, the irreconcilable clash between Aeneas' inescapable task and Dido's love turns to tragedy.
Opening the doors of a sumptuous, opulent palace the audience see the full wealth of royal generations: oil paintings, gilt frames, ornate statues, oak-panelled rooms, chandeliers, velvet seats and marbled staircases. The audience can quite simply gorge their eyes on luxury. The audience are intruders to this grandeur and elegance, which cleverly parallels the Trojans' experience as they enter the royal Carthaginian court as dispossessed aliens. When Aeneas declares ":This place beseems me not":, the audience feel much the same.
Within this setting, the gods are dressed as white-gloved curators, hinting at their absolute control over their mortal subjects. What is not so clear, however, is the relation between the gods and the objects of their care. Curatorship suggests reverence towards these objects, which cannot really be said of these petty gods who manoeuvre the humans for the own ends, heedless of any suffering they cause.
Although for many the site will be the main star of the evening, Jake Maskell's performance shone with equal brilliance. With just the right ambiguity for a hero who is neither particularly confident or glorious but whose main attribute is obedience, this Aeneas is at the mercy of the gods' decrees. Although playing a faithless lover and destroyer of the heroine, Jake Maskell's skill is in making this Aeneas sympathetic. Sarah Thom's Dido is intense and serious with suitable stately pride, before her humiliation at the hands of the gods. Jeremy Legat as the playfully destructive Cupid and Cassandra Friend who doubled as the unnatural mother Venus and Dido's sister Anna were also impressive.
This production presents a dual opportunity: that of seeing an obscure Marlowe play and the opportunity to explore the State Apartments in all their glory. Moreover, the uniqueness of this site-specific theatre means that the audience are in a state of unpeeled receptiveness as they gaze on the palace's wonders, making them more susceptible to the play's emotive force. However, some of the lengthier static scenes worked less well and at a couple of points, I could have wished for slightly less fidelity to Marlowe's play and a more innovative interweaving of situation and text.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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