Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dido, Queen of Carthage at the National

Is it wrong to snigger at self immolation? I suspect it is. But it was difficult to keep an entirely straight face watching Anastasia Hille’s distraught Phoenician queen build a pyre of John Lewis throw pillows before dousing herself in liquid, lighting a match and waiting for the ‘roaring flames’ sound effects to kick in.

Michael Billington has asked we celebrate a straightforward staging of a rarely performed work, but making Marlowe dull takes a fair bit of doing and this does it. It’s not so much the length – 3 hours, despite what the programme says – but James MacDonald’s staging which seemed almost wilfully old-fashioned and unadventurous. That’s perhaps a little harsh. I did think that Hille, as Dido, and Mark Bonnar as Aeneas gave strong, at times moving performances but I found so many of the design and directorial choices got in the way of the play rather than making it live.

The yellow shower curtain that formed the main backdrop was one such niggle, especially as the performers often left gaps in it when pulling it closed. Some of the costumes had the whiff of the dressing up box to them too, one kept in the attic by an aunt and full of odd scarves and skirts, and I couldn’t fathom why Mercury – who seemed to be wearing sock-suspenders – seemed to address the mortals via one of those devices that serial killers use to disguise their voices when taunting the police (or that’s at least what it sounded like).

There were some moments of lightness and invention but things – especially in the later stages of the play, as Aeneas was compelled to depart and Dido fretted and raved, her thoughts turning to death – felt more laboured than anything else and the climactic conflagration, when it came, was something of a damp squib. Billington has a point, in that I did enjoy seeing this play lifted off the page, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that more could have been done with it. The West End Whingers were spotted departing hastily at the interval (no doubt via the bar).