Audience response to Dido, Queen of Carthage

Performances were staged in the Levi Fox Hall, Stratford, on Friday 20th September, and the Great Hall, Christ Church, Oxford on Saturday 21st.

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“I was dazzled by it – complete thanks are due to you and your cast.”

Professor Michael Dobson, Director of The Shakespeare Institute

“It was a great evening. I thought your handling of Dido was beautifully agile and witty; and to have achieved that kind of clarity and energy in what must have been a very short rehearsal period was really remarkable.  Your use of that big, potentially diffuse, space was wonderfully confident, with the audience’s attention being fluently re-directed here, there and everywhere at need. The interweaving of the singing of Britten with Marlowe’s scenes was also very suave. A triumph that I was delighted to have witnessed!”

Professor Michael Cordner, University of York

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Triumph in his tender youth

Perhaps because of the play’s bizarre and unsettling tone (which the production mastered and by which the boys were so unfazed), Dido stands out as one of the more unusual productions by Edward’s Boys. But consistent with this company’s history and with your approach to these plays, the boys communicated the play – its story, its characters, its stakes – with a rare clarity and commitment.

Their performances seemed to appreciate and acknowledge the play’s adult themes, but they got on with it with purpose, and – as I observed from the huddle in the dressing room – a sense pride. They looked like they were having fun too. I was extremely jealous.

As the show finished I was on a real high. I haven’t felt like that at the theatre for a while so I was sorry to leave as soon as it was over. I sprinted to catch the last train and as I darted through the city centre, taking risks with traffic lights and cutting through crowds of clubbers, I realised I was smiling. I was grinning in a slightly delirious and deranged manner. I must have looked quite odd. Like Cupid in your production without the wings. With only minutes before the 23:01 departed, I really could have done with a pair of my own.

Thankfully the train was delayed, but as I stood waiting on the platform I felt frustrated. I needn’t have left so soon. I wanted to congratulate the cast properly… I’m thinking of the boys’ confidence as they moved around the space, traversing the hall, interrupting and demanding the attention of the audience as they nibbled at the remainders of their dessert. I’m thinking of the choristers lining the hall singing the enchanting and haunting “Cuckoo” as a sinister and yet consoling lullaby. I’m thinking of the show-stopping/jaw-dropping performances of “O tell me the truth about love”; of Cupid’s pose, his look to the audience, his knowing grin; and of that clever trick when Dido’s suitors were identified as the portraits of College’s notable alumni. I’m thinking too of the stunning final two minutes…

As the boys exited the hall, singing mournfully, their voices became quieter, more distant. A space, a distance that made me feel quite melancholy, opened up between them and us once again. Like youth, which the play celebrates and contemplates, it comes and then it goes.

Harry Davies

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“I remember saying many years ago in reference to ‘Edward’s Boys’  “What a wonderful way to learn!” and after watching both performances of Dido Queen of Carthage this was very evident.

It has been a genuine pleasure to watch the company’s wealth of talent grow and develop over the last seven years and on a personal note, watching our two sons appear together at Christ Church was a memory we will treasure forever.

The dedication and passion the boys deliver is a direct result of your enthusiasm and commitment. The privilege of watching the performances enhances all who sit and enjoy the remarkable accomplishments of ‘Edwards Boys’.”

Joanne & Neil Wilkinson

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Dido, Queen of Carthage (Edward’s Boys) @ Christ Church Banqueting Hall, Oxford

If Gager’s Dido was accompanied by roast belly of pork and a house red, it seemed appropriate that Marlowe’s more playful take on the Dido story was served up alongside a posh version of cream and jelly. Perry Mills took on an intimidatingly huge room with a production that refused to shy away from the homoeroticism and satirical elements of the play, but also found a deep sadness in the play’s relentless movement.

Continuing the foregrounding of the identity of King Edward VI School that characterised Henry V, here a sporting motif suggested a combat that always lay beneath the overtures of peace. The play began with a whistle and Will Lindsay’s Jupiter emerged as a tracksuited PE teacher, picking up and playing with Nick Jones as Ganymede, wearing PE kit and playing with two bare-torsoed Action Men dolls. In interview after, Mills admitted that the boys had wanted to dress Jupiter in gold tracksuit and jewellery to make a clearer Jimmy Saville connection, but the school uniforms made the relationship already explicit enough.

The element of camp comedy in the gods made clear their ultimate irresponsibility, while also providing some beautiful moments of physical comedy. Hamish de Nett’s Juno, wearing angled glasses and enormous false breasts, shrieked in rage at Jupiter’s attentions to Ganymede, which fuelled her rage as, later, she threatened to kill the sleeping Ascanius. She and Venus (David Fairbairn in backless dress and a very tight bra) faced off against one another in a dramatic and portentous stand-off, and the tiny Pascal Vogiaridis was a bare-chested Hermes who Jupiter picked up by the shorts and bodily threw (lightly) from the stage to deliver his message.

On the ground, the play’s rapidly shifting emotional states were driven by the wonderfully cheeky Joe Pocknell as Cupid, who posed in the iconic statue position of Cupid and puppeteered the helpless Dido and James Wilkinson’s Nurse with an expression of constant glee. Whether forcing Dido to mother him or teasing the Nurse who loved him (resulting in a quite shocking image as the lustful woman began forcing herself on a young boy laughing in delight), Cupid epitomised the irresponsible actions that led to destruction. Jupiter, Ganymede and (later) Venus remained onstage throughout, the older gods watching impassively while Ganymede wept for the suffering.

levi-fox02Daniel Wilkinson had a wonderful range of expression as a Dido concerned for her own position but susceptible to the charms of the child Ascanius. She dominated the main stage while Iarbus (Finlay Hatch) remained at the edges of the hall, their conversations being carried out shouting over the heads of diners. In one bravura sequence, Iarbus was banished from the hall by a Dido being forced to undergo lightning-fast emotional shifts created by Cupid’s sweeping hand movements. Her relationship with Aeneas was accompanied by beautiful singing from the choirboys, and by two swing singers who serenaded the room.

Aeneas was an upright leader and conflicted in his love for Dido. Tellingly, the appearance of Hermes carried with it the weight of a prostrate Jupiter shaking and screaming ‘Italy!’, applying terrifying pressure to Aeneas. The time spent on his long description of the Trojan wars (illustrated by Ganymede acting it out with his dolls) aligned him with the military aspect of his activity, and while his love for Dido was not feigned, his trajectory was never unclear, made the more obvious by the overt manipulation of Dido.

Pared down to about 90 minutes, the play did less in terms of individualising the Trojans but retained the prominence of the Anna storyline, acting as a sober and moving parallel to Dido. With Iarbus kept angrily at the edges of the hall, George Hodson’s plainly dressed Anna was reduced to crying after her love while standing alongside her more frantic sister. This was by no means a comic subplot, but in many ways the more affecting of the two love stories. Relief was provided by the lustful Nurse.

christ-church02While the actors made significant reference to their surroundings, both treating the diners in the audience as Dido’s courtiers and referring to the portraits on the wall, the banquet scene was the only one which felt specifically designed for this kind of space. Rather, the length of the hall was used to set up emblematic images. The cave for Dido and Aeneas’ tryst was established by young boys sitting on the shoulders of taller actors and creating an arch for the lovers to disappear into. This was mirrored at the far end of the hall when a similar grouping of actors appeared wearing black shifts that flickered with red bulbs, creating a representation of the pyre, through an arch in which the three suicides walked.

The ominous feelings of the play created by the elegiac music that accompanied it were realised as Dido, Iarbus and Anna disappeared off down the grand stairs outside the banqueting hall, and were followed by the rest of the company, singing a lilting folk elegy for Dido. Wonderfully, the cast kept walking, their voices echoing back up the stone staircase and becoming gradually silent, leaving the audience simultaneously devastated and delighted. It was a fittingly large-scale close to a play that thrived on the oscillation between the intimate and the epic, and which filled a difficult space with ease.

Dr Peter Kirwan, University of Nottingham