The Beggar's Opera
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Vaclav Havel has followed Bertolt Brecht in taking John Gay's Beggar's Opera as a basis for a political satire. Under Sam Walters's artistic direction, The Orange Tree in Richmond has specialised in premiering Havel's plays in Britain. Quite why it has taken since 1975 - when this play was first performed in Havel's home country - until 2003 for such a good play by a major playwright to be brought across to Britain is a mystery. It is now produced to coincide with Havel's retirement as president of the Czech Republic.
This version of The Beggar's Opera works on two separate levels. It is ostensibly a very pleasantly diverting amusement about scoundrels in mid-19th century London. In the hands of a masterly samizdat playwright like Havel it is an eloquent commentary upon a totalitarian state, which would not have allowed direct commentary on its failings. Havel realised that the ruling party had a tendency to be too obtuse to realise that a comedy about London 100 years before could also be a vicious attack upon Czechoslovakia in 1975.
The plot is relatively simple in its conception. Willy Peachum (David Timson) is an underworld godfather whose main rival is the handsome young Macheath (Howard Saddler). Peachum's relationship with Bill Lockit (Bruce Alexander), the chief of police, is complex to say the least. They double, triple and quadruple cross each other and everyone else with gay abandon. It is clear that Peachum's first allegiance is to his pocket and to this end, if he needs to sell his daughter, his colleagues or his soul to the devilish state, then he will do so.
In some ways, Macheath's relationship with them is much simpler. He has bigamously married both of their daughters and each of the young ladies would do as little (or as much) for him as they would for their fathers.
As the play develops, the relationships twist and turn with much skulduggery as the handsome Macheath tries to keep everyone happy with his remarkable caddish charm. He is the kind of man who is equally loved and betrayed by his women but there is a kind of openness and honesty about him that distinguishes him from the powers that be.
Similarly, Harry Filch (Tim Treloar), a freelance pickpocket, is the most honest thief in town to whom honour means more than his life. He will not stoop to the hypocrisy that is practised by his supposed betters even when the alternative is the noose.
Throw in the ladies, Diana (Vivien Heilbron) a very genteel and amusing owner of a "ladies' salon" with her three charming assistants and the respective daughters, Polly Peachum (Octavia Walters) and Lucy Lockit (Claire Redcliffe) who obediently simper and squea, and you have a recipe for much fun.
Under Geoffrey Beevers' direction, there is sometimes a suspicion and that some of the actors are under-rehearsed but with particularly strong performances from Howard Saddler, David Timson and Octavia Walter, both the comedy and the allegorical comment on a totalitarian state are allowed to seep out.
At some stage, somebody will probably write a thesis or book to explain why, while Czechoslovakia gets a politician-writer of the quality of Havel, during a similar period in the United Kingdom, the closest equivalents that could be offered are Lord Archer and Edwina Currie. There has long been a theory that writing under threat of imprisonment improves quality. In Havel's case this may well be correct. One is more wary of suggesting that this might also be the literary making of his Lordship.
While the plotting may not have quite the depth of the original, Macheath is still dashing, the ladies lovely and his rivals dastardly. For those who love subtlety in their politics or just enjoy plain old-fashioned stories of criminals and sexual scandals, The Beggar's Opera (not an opera in the musical sense) is strongly recommended.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher