There are many strange things about Marlowe's first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, now revived at the National Theatre. Not that such a sardonic, cruel and plangent piece of theatre has been largely neglected for decades by the British stage. Nor that its construction is teasing (the squabbling gods interfere horribly with the hearts and minds of Dido and Aeneas, then lose interest and disappear from the play altogether, like toddlers in search of new distraction, new toys to break). Nor that what has at times seemed like an amorous tragic-farce ends abruptly, almost perfunctorily, in triple suicide, performed in quick succession.
No, oh best beloved, the real bafflement to the modern spectator is that Dido is one of several early modern plays which to us seem to surge with mature passion, or which are peppered by ruthless financial intrigue or by jokes born of a sophisticated and filthy mind, but which were written expressly for children. We are familiar with the idea that young actors played female roles on the professional stage (though scholars disagree about how youthful they might have been). But entire companies of children? What would it have been like to watch them?
If, like me, you think of High School Musical and shudder, think again. The kids' companies seem to have been the smartest, fleetest in a town not short of quickfire talkers. And though you might understand their grasp of farce, how did they encompass Aeneas' compulsive, shamed rhetoric as he describes the fall of Troy; or Dido's self-doubting torment as her lover sidles away? Were the young actors extraordinary, or were Elizabethan notions of what constituted a convincing performance very different to our own?
A while ago, for example, I read an obscure comedy written for a Jacobean children's company called The Fleer by a young lawyer called Edward Sharpham. The edition by Lucy Munro leaves no rudery unsignposted, until it becomes difficult to read on without your glasses steaming over - its plot follows the usurped, disguised duke of Florence as he tries to divert his daughters from the life of prostitution they are cheerfully embracing. Oh, it's rancid. You might think twice about letting your kids watch it, let alone act in it.
A friend recently described to me a performance by the lads of King Edward VI School, in Stratford-upon-Avon of Middleton's slavering city comedy, A Mad World, My Masters. She went with doubts and left dazzled - the jeers, chicanery and knob jokes seemed to come naturally to teenage boys. Fancy that. Even so, she admitted she was taken aback when the cast presented themselves for a Q&A at the end of the show, polite and restored to childhood once again in their school uniform. The past, which had crept close, slithered away and returned to strangeness.
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