A Beggar’s Opera that beggars belief in Edinburgh

25 August 2018 9:00 AM

The Beggar's Opera

Robert Carsen’s new updating of The Beggar’s Opera is a coke-snorting, trash-talking, breakdancing, palm-greasing, skirt-hiking, rule-breaking affair — and every bit as wearyingly tedious as that sounds.

Leaving behind the work’s original 18th-century setting, Carsen sets out boldly for present-day London (where the streets are paved with Brexit-related comedy gold), but in Ian Burton’s rewrite seems to land somewhere circa 1990. In a production originally created for Paris’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Peachum, Macheath and their band of criminal lowlifes are the kind of East End cockney schemers even DCI Jane Tennison would have found it nostalgic to investigate, while corrupt cop Lockit is more Pirates of Penzance than McMafia. Sure there are the obligatory hoodies and trainers (fishnets and pleather for the girls), and plenty of references to Meghan Markle, Theresa May and ‘strong and stable government’, but it still ends up feeling like an edgy gangster update as imagined by your gran.

When it premiered in 1728, John Gay’s satire was the ultimate succès de scandale — a two-fingered musical salute not only to the political elite, but also to culture’s ruling force: Italian opera. The Beggar’s Opera was to Rinaldo or Rodelinda as Mamma Mia! is to the Ring cycle, a jukebox musical that gathered together the biggest hits of the day (when ‘The Lass Of Patie’s Mill’ and ‘Would You Have A Young Virgin’ were tearing up the charts), gave them frank new words and put them in the foul mouths of prostitutes and pickpockets. So deliciously shocking was the result that Gay’s sequel Polly was banned from theatres. It was a coup Brecht and Weill famously repeated in their own updating, The Threepenny Opera, layering a whole new century of grime on top of this already grubby tale.


But what both the original Beggar’s Opera and its Threepenny reincarnation share that Carsen’s lacks is anger — the engine of all good satire. Without it, protest turns to pantomime. Satire should be the sharp stab of a flick-knife in the belly, whereas this benign bit of fun wields nothing more dangerous than a banana to the shoulder-blades. Perhaps it’s the involvement of Les Arts Florissants, whose musicians are precisely the sort of classical establishment Gay’s work originally took aim at. The soft rasp of early instruments does much to smudge and soften all those profanities; it’s hard to be too affronted by anything when a piccolo recorder is piping glibly away in the background like a baroque Pollyanna.

The window-dressing though, on this everything-must-go, closing-down-sale of a Beggar, is good. James Brandily’s neatly adaptable set places us in a kingdom of cardboard boxes, a precarious warehouse home to London’s less admissible capitalist enterprises, while Rebecca Howell’s choreography finds real freshness and energy in gestures that somehow bridge the gap between 18th-century court and 21st-century street.

A multi-talented group of performers are drawn not from opera but musical theatre, a decision that creates welcome friction against the period prettiness of the playing. The songs are short and simple, and leave plenty of space for character, which we get in handfuls from Robert Burt’s three-piece-suited spiv of a Peachum (whose catch-phrase ‘What’s in it for me?’ becomes the production’s millennial motto) and Beverley Klein, doubling up as Mrs Peachum and tart-with-a-heart Diana Trapes. Benjamin Purkiss’s Macheath has an unexpectedly neurotic edge to his charisma, playing off his two ‘wives’ — Polly (sweetly sung by Kate Batter) and Lucy (a feistier Olivia Brereton) with rueful, insecure charm. But there’s not a lot any of them can do to shore up this flimsy show. ‘What’s in it for me?’, I hear you ask? Not a great deal I’m afraid.

From cautionary tale to bedtime story and Ravel’s one-act L’enfant et les sortilèges, in a Proms performance by Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. It may be a ‘lyric fantasy’ of talking animals and armchairs, but there’s nothing twee or sentimental about it, or its presentation of childhood on the brink. ‘Maman!’ The Child’s final cry of the opera — a falling fourth that can pack a war’s worth of trauma into just two notes (Ravel began work on L’enfant in 1920) — is the touchstone of any performance. Is it a statement or a question, a plea or a cry of relief?

In Magdalena Kozena’s hands it became dangerously glib, clean musical architecture draped in a vulgar portamento; this was a child never in any real doubt or danger. But around Kozena’s rather overworked performance Rattle and his orchestra cast a wonderfully bracing musical spell — just acidic enough to temper the material’s sweetness. Cameos from Patricia Bardon (Mother), Gavan Ring (a deliciously tightly-wound Grandfather Clock) and Anna Stéphany’s Squirrel all made their mark, but it was Jane Archibald’s Fire, flickering light and white-hot, that stood apart.