Review: John Gay – The Beggar’s Opera ****

Edinburgh International Festival

John Gay – The Beggar’s Opera

King’s Theatre

19:30 (run ends19 August)

**** (4 stars)

On the incongruity! A siren wails and a crowd of be-hoodied Yoof rush into the auditorium and on to the stage where they drag musical instruments from among the cardboard boxes which litter the set and form its back wall and settle down to play John Gay’s music on period instruments – this is Les Arts Florissants as you’ve never before seen them!

To add to the disconnect, more street blokes start ‘dancing’ acrobatically and robotically and we are launched into a very 21st century production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which was a howling success in Handel’s day because of its biting political satire and its contrast to the Italian opera patronised by the elite. It used popular tunes of the day and contemporary English, and told of the lives of crooks and prostitutes and the London low life of the day, the hero being Macheath, thief, womaniser and all-round bastard…

In this production, originally seen in the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the dialogue and characters have been updated, with topical references that will be stale and unintelligible tomorrow – but the vices are more or less unchanged – robbery, deceit and swindling [though the preferred methods of reaching oblivion in liquor are augmented with Bolly, cocktails, and an assortment of drugs]. Mobiles, laptops, and tablets are much in evidence and the tarts’ offerings are possibly somewhat more sophisticated than in the original, but the plot is roughly the same – Macheath has married Polly Peachum and got Lucy Lockit pregnant: both girls pursue him, as do their parents, the latter being after the reward for shopping him rather than to embrace him as a son-in-law.

The band’s playing was, as you would expect, exquisite – though I do wonder how far their sound would penetrate the vast spaces of the King’s Theatre [I was fortunate to be sitting near them]. The energy and enthusiasm of the production was arresting: the language fitted the setting but didn’t amuse me as much as it did the majority of the audience, who howled with laughter at the topical references and the not-very-subtle crudeness both of expression and of action.

There’s not a scrap of lovingkindness in the production, not one sympathetic character and no hint of the ‘loveable rogue’ about Macheath. The overall message of the piece was that the most important rule of life is “What’s in it for me?”: this was put over with great enthusiasm – which is, I guess, why I wasn’t engaged by any of the characters. The piece was superbly done, but doesn’t give out a message that speaks to me. The rest of the audience obviously didn’t have my reservations and erupted into a storm of applause at the end. Some purists will be raising their eyebrows and tutting at the ‘desecration’ of a period piece, but most people thought this was a bloody good show.

Mary Woodward