In 2006 I directed Christopher Marlowe’s first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, in a site sepcific production in central London. The site, the House of St Barnabas, is an 18th century merchant’s house in the centre of Soho, which was operating at the time as an international women’s refuge. The building itself, with its chapel and central courtyard, was a central element in the development of the performance. The associations, noises and smells of neighbouring Soho Square and Greek Street, as well as the building’s past and present uses also informed many layers of the performance, characterisation, the design concept and the way in which we worked with our audience each night.
The production was based on a tightly edited version of the script which I developed collaboratively with Sarah Thom, through several research and development periods, along with a talented acting company. I also drew on research into other sources for the performance text, including Virgil’s Aeneid and Purcell’s opera of Dido and Aeneas. This production was one of the first professional performances of Marlowe’s first play on record.
Some press comments on this production:
“I’ve seldom come across anything quite so adventurous, inventive and imaginative as this production by Rebecca McCutcheon. This is a seriously enchanting show. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Neither should you.”
THE SUNDAY TIMES (JOHN PETER) JUNE 11th, 2006
“…“Dido, Queen of Carthage” in purely theatrical terms is the real deal…”
VARIETY/ BLOOMSBERG NEWS
“ ..a tremendous portrait of a very English kind of erotic possession by Sarah Thom … Rebecca McCutcheon makes spectacular use of the building’s natural architectural perspectives and hierarchies…a clever, spooky and emotionally satisfying show” ****
TIME OUT (ROBERT SHORE)
“…committed performances, particularly from Jake Maskall as the tormented Aeneas and Sarah Thom as the doomed, eponymous queen and , add dramatic weight to a brilliantly resourceful and exciting production.”
“Enter and you will become embroiled in a deadly
game of love and chance… there are plenty of pleasures along the way…”
THE GUARDIAN (LYN GARDNER)
“angels in the architecture understand that most people have a childlike fascination with secret rooms and forbidden spaces, and use that to superb effect” ****
“…The House of St. Barnabas has its own micro-climate, as do Marlowe’s lovers, whose tussles between love and duty, Africa and Europe, look like foreplay for Anthony and Cleopatra… Sarah Thom makes a pale and obsessive Dido, Jake Maskall a raw and riven Aeneas… a jewelled but seldom seen Marlowe romance…”
THE OBSERVER (SUSANNAH CLAPP)
“…a deliciously enthralling production… Jake Maskall is excellent as Aeneas, Sarah Thom captivating as Dido… angels in the architecture have evidently tapped into some divine inspiration…”
ROGUES & VAGABONDS
“the play doesn’t flinch from the desperate side of passion… Sarah Thom’s besotted Dido is lit up from within”
“enterprising… at the centre are two compelling performances: Sarah Thom is a statuesque, haunted Dido and Jake Maskall makes a fierily intense Aeneas, the wandering hero who unwittingly captures his hostess’s heart. Nice rococo interiors to gawp at too.”
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH (Dominic Cavendish)
“…matchless, ecstatic verse…poetry that even surpasses Shakespeare’s… angels in the architecture take a heavenly step upwards….”
THE EVENING STANDARD (NICHOLAS DE JONGH)
More detailed reviews:
The theatre is always an adventure, but I’ve seldom come across anything quite so adventurous, inventive and imaginative as this production by Rebecca McCutcheon. Marlowe’s play is so closely based on Virgil’s epic that he even included a few lines in Latin. These McCutcheon has wisely dropped. Purists will naturally sniff at some of the cuts, not to mention a few little additions, some of them hilariously indecent, which Marlowe would have relished. This is a promenade performance, moving from space to space in and out of the building, including the chapel, with its beautiful mosaics, but the atmosphere is entirely without solemnity: the tragedy is told with warmth, sympathy and a touch of melancholy humour. The lines are spoken with clarity and feeling — not something you take for granted these days. This is a seriously enchanting show. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Neither should you. ****
John Peter, The Sunday Times
Tim Carroll’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003 failed to make much of a case for Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy as a play worthy of regular theatrical revival. The work’s influence over Shakespeare – significant elements of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, not to mention the development of the iambic pentameter, are foreshadowed here – is undisputed, but is ‘Dido’ anything more than an interesting historical artefact? Can it be made to work on stage? The answer provided by this Angels in the Architecture production is a resounding ‘yes’ – not that the site-specific company deigns to use anything so conventional as a stage, of course.
The production really comes to life with the entrance of the Carthaginian queen, played against exotic type as a sort of cross between Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher by Sarah Thom. Unlikely as it sounds, it’s a tremendous portrait of a very English kind of erotic possession.
Beginning and ending in the Oxford Movement-inspired chapel, McCutcheon’s production takes the audience on a plot-driven tour of this nineteenth-century women’s charity, making spectacular use of the building’s natural architectural perspectives and hierarchies to suggest the different realms of mortals and gods: as Dido and Aeneas embrace in a storm, the eye is drawn up in a vertiginous zigzag from Cupid (an eerily compelling performance by Jeremy Legat) wielding a watering can to the deities masterminding events from above. It all adds up to a clever, spooky and emotionally satisfying show.
Robert Shore, TIME OUT, Tue Jun 6
A new staging is on view for two more weeks in a promenade production that takes place in and around a hidden chapel tucked down a Soho side street. The venue — and Rebecca McCutcheon’s accomplished take on a difficult text — are worth seeking out.
McCutcheon is one of two artistic directors of a theater company that goes by the name Angels in the Architecture, the intention being to wed scripts to particular non-traditional spaces that will in turn enliven the work.
Here, then, at the House of St. Barnabas, a former hostel for the homeless with a chapel on the premises, is a witty, often affecting take on Marlowe’s play about an all-consuming human passion watched over, sometimes none too wisely, by some fairly hateful Gods.
At first, one fears two hours (no intermission) of camp, however good-natured, as we are invited on to the premises by androgynous hosts busy proffering glasses of wine. But what’s impressive is how soon, and how thoroughly, a genuine seriousness takes hold. In part, that’s down to Marlowe, a Renaissance writer capable at times of rivaling Shakespeare in a galloping poetry.
It’s also due to the ease with which McCutcheon guides us through a banqueting table, a courtyard, and even a makeshift underworld of sorts, before playing out the extended final sequence in the mosaic-filled chapel where the evening’s circuit first begins. That closing passage is galvanized by the performance of McCutcheon’s co-artistic director, Sarah Thom, as a Dido who suggests Tilda Swinton in her pale-faced gravitas.
By the end, any fears of a coyly self-conscious stage “happening” have been allayed. For all that’s different about the surroundings, “Dido Queen of Carthage” in purely theatrical terms is the real deal.
Matt Wolf, VARIETY/ BLOOMSBERG NEWS
The inventive Angels in the Architecture specialise in performing rarely staged works in unusual spaces. Having previously produced Noel Coward’s Still Life in the disused Aldwych tube station, their latest project is a production of Marlowe’s infrequently performed tragedy in a former refuge for homeless women in the heart of Soho.
Though there is pleasure to be taken simply from being allowed into this intriguing building, the company does not merely rely on that fact and considerable thought has clearly gone into the use of the various locations of an atmospheric chapel, a secluded courtyard and the refuge’s residential quarters. The piece excels in its attention to detail; watchful Gods perch on fire escapes and smile enigmatically through skylights. Committed performances, particularly from Jake Maskall as the tormented Aeneas and Sarah Thom as the doomed, eponymous queen, add dramatic weight to what proved to be a brilliantly resourceful and exciting production.
The House of St Barnabas, tucked away in Soho, was founded in 1846 as a house of charity for destitute women. Wandering around its maze of atmospheric rooms, one wonders how many of the women who found themselves within its walls were brought low by love like the heroine of Christopher Marlowe’s play. Enter through its narrow door and you will become embroiled in a deadly game of love and chance. … angels in architecture’s promenade production makes a strong case for its way of working, there are plenty of pleasures along the way … Rebecca McCutcheon makes great use of the space, from the plain lines of the refectory where we become courtiers at Dido’s table, to the intimacies of the chapel with its golden mosaics…
THE GUARDIAN (LYN GARDNER)
Audience comments written directly after the show
We provided mailing list forms at the venue with an invitation to make further comments. Here are some of them:
I wish all theatre could be like this
Best production of anything we have ever seen. Yeah!
Wonderful – thank you
I really enjoyed the performance, particularly the use of space and costumes/props – a lovely evening.
Such an exciting experience, thank you all.
Wonderfully intimate and dramatic. Thanks.
I loved it and don’t want to leave the magic of psycho-Carthage. Thanks.
Absolutely amazing production in every way possible. The acting was superb and the way in which we followed the actors was brill!
I loved it – thank you very much for an amazing evening!
The production was limitlessly superb.
Really excellent, strange, very well acted and totally absorbing
Audience Comments that have been emailed to us via our website, http://www.angelsinthearchitecture.co.uk
I saw Dido Queen of Carthage last week and have decided I never want to
see anything on the conventional stage again. You brought the play alive and made
it totally accessible to our year 10 and 12 students – thank you so much.
Hi- 2 friends took me to see Dido Queen of Carthage on Saturday as a
birthday present and I just wanted to let you know what a fantastic gift it was. I
studied Marlowe a bit as an English undergraduate many years ago and I would’ve
thought it pretty much impossible to pull off an effective production of Dido now-
as well as me being a cynical old bugger who’s constantly underwhelmed by
everything..! But I found your production completely engaging and very cleverly
done. Thank you very much for it, and please add me to your mailing list.
From my first steps into that gloriously atmospheric chapel, I was fully drawn into
the theatrical world conjured by your actors and designers. I was particularly
impressed by the technical aspects of the production, in which the lighting and
sound were so skilfully conceived and executed, despite what I would imagine to be
real challenges in working in that setting. The text, despite its daunting density,
came beautifully to life in all of the actors, delivered with clarity, passion, and
a vivid intimacy.
What wonderful things we discovered on the journey we took with your performers,
director, and designers: the glimpse of Venus at the skylight above the banqueting
hall…Cupid’s “storm” descending from a watering can… cries echoing from rooms
beyond view. None of these would have had the same impact when framed by a
Marlowe and site-specific work are daunting enough individually, and their
combination seems to be fraught with theatrical dangers. Missteps in performance or
the technical area could have reduced any well-intentioned mounting to the level of
a cringe-inducing Renaissance Faire visit. How exciting and satisfying to see those
dangers embraced, boldly met, and transformed into one of the most memorable
performances I’ve ever attended. My thanks and admiration to all involved in this
I saw the play on Tuesday night and loved it ; loved the imaginative creative work
that clearly went into its development, the total engagement of you all with the
audience ; loved being held in thrall to whatever came next and wherever it might
happen, loved the energy and quality and commitment of the whole exciting thing.
It’s what theatre should do for us all and seldom does.
My recent visit to London included attending performances of 10 plays,
from Phaedra to Billy Elliot, and I must tell you that nothing I saw was more
imaginative, or more interesting, than your production of Dido. Thank you so much.
I also was very pleased to get to talk with Jo Carr, R. McCutcheon, and Merritt Gray. What you all are doing is very exciting, and yes of course I want to be on your
mailing list. All the best,
I just wanted to say how BRILLIANT the performance of Dido was! My partner
Richard and I were totally enthralled the entire evening! We got separated because
we had different coloured playing cards and afterwards were exchanging our stories,
what an inspired idea. All of the actors were amazing and the storyline was so
gripping. As a drama teacher I’m always looking for ideas to introduce at school and
was squirreling away inspiration all night. The venue was perfect too. I wish you
the very best for the remainder of the run and look forward to seeing you again in
the future. Again, huge Congratulations!
Just wanted to say again how much I enjoyed the show and to make sure that I’m on
the mailing list for your next project ,even a
revival of ‘Still Life’ – I would have loved to have seen that.
The combination of the beautiful setting, the gorgeous poetry, the lovely sunny day,
and the talented cast made it a truly magical theatrical experience.
I do hope you saw the rave review in the ‘Sunday Times’ – I’m sure that must have
pulled a few punters in.
I came to see “Dido” last Tuesday (6 June) and just wanted to tell how
very much I enjoyed it. Both the staging and the performances were outstanding and
have stayed with me in the days since I saw the show. The choice of location served
to enhance the text, not detract from it (so easily done with site specific stuff
where the site can take over!) and it was quite enthralling to be so intimately
connected with the drama. Imaginative touches such as the gods looking down and the
watering can rain I just loved – EXACTLY my type of theatre.
Just thought I would email to say how much I enjoyed your invesntive
production of Dido on Saturday. I have never seen a production that uses the
building quite so much! It reminded me of a promenade production I saw at Edinburgh
Festival a few years back by Pig Iron Theatre Company from Pittsburgh. Are you
thinking of taking this show to Edinburgh? I think it would do really well there if
you could find the right location!
All the best,
PETER JAMES THOMAS