As we entered Greenwich theatre for Lazarus Theatre's Dido, Queen of Carthage, we were warned of smoke and haze being used in the production. And, in a rare case, the smoke used in a production wasn't weak or pitiful: the theatre was filled with a mysterious light haze that floated around the stage which, along with the very dim lighting and sounds of the open sea playing, made for a very atmospheric theatre. This heavy sense of atmosphere that lay over the theatre was continued throughout the production, making for a very engaging experience.
To start with I really must compliment Rachel Smith's lighting design, which managed to be so very effective whilst being astoundingly simple. Whilst the centre of the stage was lit well, where most of the action took place of course, the surrounding areas were left in an omnious gloom – something that aided the production greatly. Combine this with some normal fading lights, and a very bright (and jumpy) spot of lightning, and the audience are handed some perfectly executed lighting – managing to do so much with so little.
Moving onto the cast, and once again I'm full of compliments. The acting was consistently strong throughout, showcasing a very high standard of work – and this was true for the entirety of the cast. I honestly feel that it would be unfair of me to highlight individuals for their acting talents, as there was not a single weak link in the main or supporting roles. The cast themselves added greatly to the rich and heavy atmosphere with their humming in unison, which added a second layer of the ominous to the show.
The first scene of this play suddenly shattered the rather placid and subtle atmosphere of all mentioned above, as the audience were met with a bold scene of Jupiter and Ganymede halfway through a sexual act. Having this bold scene as the first thing to be shown to the audience really did set a great no-holds-barred kind of tone to the action, a gripping and shocking start. However, it did seem that much of the action after this first scene did not follow on in this daring direction – instead moving towards a more surreal, image-focused production.
And surreal it was. The production featured heavy uses of umbrellas to represent certain objects or landscapes, the prime example of this being the set before the production started, with various blue umbrellas (with two model ships on the top of them) clearly representing waves of the ocean. It sounds strange but it actually worked very well, and was an interesting and novel way to use a prop (and, as far as I am aware, didn't bring any bad luck – as is expected with open umbrellas inside). The umbrellas were used similiarly to create the fire which Dido makes to burn herself in. This once again made for a very beautiful and surreal image, which I enjoyed, however the same umbrellas were used from the sea – meaning that Dido was swallowed by a strange blue and green flame. Maybe some more red umbrellas would be in order. The only other issue I had with the use of umbrellas was the fact that they doubled up as prop swords, which was odd. Whilst no sword fighting happened, meaning the props wouldn't have to stand up to clashes, it didn't feel right seeing a "warrior" with an umbrella strapped to his side; how manly.
The next surreal aspect was the use of a rather weird looking puppet to play the role of Ascanius, moved about by three cast members kneeling behind it. Seeing this puppet used in amongst the group of real actors was a bit disconcerting at first, as it didn't seem to fit. However, as the production got going it you really get used to it being there – which was massively helped along by the talent in which it is handled. The movements of it are so natural and well executed that it soon stops feeling artifical and blends in surprisingly well. Hats off to Alice Sillett for the puppet direction!
However, there was one piece of imagery that wasn't so successful. As Aeneas tells the story of how Troy fell to the Greeks, the members of the court that are surrounding him back slowly into the gloom – a beautiful moment which was very well staged. But those that moved then appeared behind Aeneas, and began to act out some of his stories in a selection of physical pieces. These really could have been great, but some did not seem to translate all that well with what was being said. They were also so far back into the gloom (in an attempt to keep attention directed at Aeneas) that they were pretty hard to see, obscuring their actions.
This wasn't the end of my staging woes either. Some of the actors had, for a surprising amount of time, their backs to the audience. This made some of the dialogue more difficult to hear, and really was not in line with the high standard of acting that was presented. There was also a moment where, due to a majority of the cast facing away from the audience, I was not aware that a child puppet was even present – making it very confusing when Ascanius began speaking. I should not have been having these issues, especially not when sitting near the front and right in the centre of the theatre!
These issues of staging aside, Lazarus Theatre's production of Dido, Queen of Carthage was excellent. A strong cast of actors (and puppeteers), alongside effective lighting and some choice moments of beautiful imagery made this an evening of entertaining and gripping theatre.