Dido, Queen of Carthage

As the RSC seems to have given up on Shakespeare’s precursors and contemporaries, it’s great news that the National is reviving Christopher Marlowe’s first play, and in such a fine, insidiously involving production as this one by James Macdonald in the Cottesloe.

Six years ago, the Globe produced a somewhat garbled version in a playground setting – misguidedly taking a cue from the fact that the play’s first recorded performance was by the Children of the Chapel in Croydon before the Queen in 1591.

The story closely follows the early books of Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas, travelling to Italy from the defeat at Troy, is waylaid in North Africa by the queen, guided there by his mother, the goddess Venus. Seducing Dido with tales of valour and destruction, the queen arranges a hunting expedition where their love is consummated in a cave during a storm.

But duty calls and tragedy ensues. Anastasia Hille plays Dido with a quivering uncertainty from the off, almost hyperventilating in the soldier’s presence and treating her other suitor, the neighbouring king Iarbus (Obi Abili) with casual contempt. Mark Bonnar, an outstanding Orsino in the Donmar’s Twelfth Night, is an utterly convincing, war-scarred Aeneas, dragging his son Ascanius (Thomas Patten on opening night) behind him.

The iambic pentameters roll out with generous, inventive profusion as Marlowe presents the Trojan stragglers, a sybaritic Jupiter (Alan David) and an interfering Venus (Siobhan Redmond) while developing a sub-plot fixation of Dido’s sister, Anna (Sian Brooke), on Iarbus. There is some lovely, plangent music by Orlando Gough.

Instead of clamour, Macdonald settles on a hushed intensity, with Tobias Hoheisel’s designs of simple curtains and an upper level, and Moritz Junge’s casually mixed costumes, creating a louche, contemporary atmosphere with historical trappings. No-one with the faintest interest in Elizabethan drama will want to miss the production, or revel in its language.

Stephen Kennedy is a fine Achates, Aeneas’ friend, and Susan Engel doubles as the spurned Juno and Cupid’s nurse with her wonderful speech of fruits, flowers and fishes. All passion spent, Dido prepares her funeral pyre with the rapt purpose of Cleopatra summoning the poisoned snakes, and Hille achieves an inner calm at last as she piles Aeneas’ “ticing relics” – his sword, letters, oars and rigging – and reaches for the matches and petrol.

– Michael Coveney