Strange really. In spite of the pledge that appears at the top of every page of this website the Whingers have never actually had the opportunity to tell you whether it’s worth missing the Merlot for the Marlowe.
Since they were born three years ago out of the foam created by the severed genitals of Uranus in the sea near Cyprus* the Whingers have consumed bathtubs of Merlot but their paths have never crossed that of Mister Christopher Marlowe.
All that was put to rights on Tuesday evening at the press night of Dido Queen of Carthage at the National.
The portents were not promising. Of the brave mortals who had already ventured through the Cottesloe’s dread portals, Feigned Mischief had fled at the interval (unheard of) and even the patient and well-informed London Theatre Goer was iffy.
As they shared a manly moment at the urinals shortly before the curtain was due to go up even bona fide critic Charles Spencer of the Telegraph warned Phil, “I don’t think you’ll like it,” like some Cassandra of the cubicles.
Plus there was the predicted running time of three hours (as opposed to the two and a half quoted in the programme – surely the National’s most “approximate running time” ever).
But taking their always-open and half-empty minds into the Cottesloe auditorium and leaning over from their seats in the gods the Whingers could at least look down literally and metaphorically upon the press critics as they took their various aisle seats (first string) and second from aisle seats (second string) and wonder at their sartorial choices and – in some cases – their line in accessories (to the owner of that reusable Times/Sunday Times cotton bag: it’s screaming “bag lady” more than “big cheese” really).
But even as DQOC kicked off gaily enough with Jupiter “dandling Ganymede upon his knee” (Marlowe’s stage direction) on a sofa high over the stage Andrew began to worry. The signs could have been no clearer had he tossed Phil’s entrails about the auditorium and divined their meaning. For his thoughts immediately drifted to the floating sofa in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and a hasty consultation of the programme revealed surely enough that the director was none other than James Macdonald who not only directed Miss Churchill’s flying sofa but was also responsible for the “post-dramatic masterpiece” The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. Clearly a man of questionable taste.
Anyhow, let’s just say it was hard work, perking up only when the lovestruck Dido (Anastasia Hille) is on stage. Particularly delightful is the scene in which she awkwardly shows off the portraits of the impressive potential suitors she has turned down by way of showing Aeneas (Mark Bonnar) what a catch she would be.
But such moments are unfortunately few and far between. Andrew was nodding off and Phil’s mind was wandering as he began to summon up even less interest than his savings account. Minds were particularly wandering during the marathon scene in which Aeneas describes the siege of Troy at very great length during a mezze based dinner party in which everyone sits on low stools or on the floor itself. When the party did finally get up from their cushions the Whingers raised their hats to the actors’ athleticism. After such a long time in cross-legged position cranes would have been needed to lift the Whingers and the sounds of their joints cracking would have rivalled Frances Barber’s whip cracking.
A classical education might have helped. There was much talk of Cassandra, Ajax, Diana et al and Phil was just about keeping up but when the conversations got on to Priam and Pyrrhus Phil got thoroughly confused and conflated the two into “Primus” which effected another trip down memory lane and his camping days.
The costumes were, well, interesting. They could possibly have been cobbled together from off-cuts from Priscilla Queen of the Desert‘s wardrobe. The wonderful Susan Engel as Juno channelled Fenella Fielding in an off-the-shoulder cloak and black-bobbed wig. Strange headdresses abounded although sadly there was nothing of Priscilla‘s size or budget. Poor Irabas (Obi Abili) had to wear something on his bonce not unlike Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower. At one point Siobhan Redmond‘s Venus turns up with something resembling a rather large boot scraper separating her boobs and a choker that makes her appear as though she’s just pulled her head out of a peg basket.
It was much more interesting to spend the time looking down on the critics and watching them reading their programmes, perhaps to check a fact or possibly for just something to do. One was sitting with his head in his hands, possibly in despair. We must have missed Michael Billington but presumably he looked really perky as he enjoyed himself twice as much (four stars) as he had at Priscilla the previous evening (two stars).
Meanwhile, Mark Shenton reported the following morning that he spied the following notes on a colleague’s notebook: “Bread, fruit, salad”, noting that it was the most articulate review of all. Michael Coveney picked up the story in his blog and named the poor woman which seems less than gentlemanly.**
As has been reported here and here (is there no privacy?) we did not make it past the interval. In our haste to evacuate before the second half kicked off we literally bumped into artistic director Mister Nicholas Hytner who was on his way in. He was most gracious about it. In fact, he murmured “sorry” to us but whether that was was in acknowledgement of the collision or the play we can not be certain.
But, no, it is not worth missing the Merlot for the Marlowe.***
* Not strictly accurate, but an approximation of the Whingers’ genesis. We pinched that from the programme notes about the goddess Venus.
** But that is completely overshadowed by the big row between Mister Shenton and Mister Coveney as the latter takes umbrage at the former’s suggestion that he may have a conflict of interests. Said Mister Shenton:
In his review [of Priscilla] for The Independent, Michael Coveney slammed it for featuring a “pretty strong blast of lethal elements” and said “it sort of stinks”, yet at the same time acclaimed the production itself for being “slick, well organised and fairly enjoyable”. But if the juxtapositions of those feelings seem somewhat contradictory, even more so is his review on Whatsonstage.com that seems to strip out most of his criticisms entirely. Jason Donovan, declared “rancid” in the Indie, is merely referenced as “underpowered” on Whatsonstage, and that’s about as bad as it gets.
Whatsonstage.com – who now operate out of offices on top of the very theatre where Priscilla is playing, and whose lead London producer The Really Useful Group are now major shareholders of the website – may have wanted to avoid uncomfortable conversations in the rickety old lift when their staff and cast collide…
Well, you know a bit of transparency doesn’t come amiss.
*** Actually, we didn’t miss the Merlot. We took a bottle in with us but that doesn’t make for such a good story, does it.