The Beggar's Opera

John Gay
Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris

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Benjamin Purkiss (Macheath) with love-struck fans Credit: Patrick Berger, Theatre des Bouffes du Nord
Go hang - Kraig Thornber (Lockit) and Robert Burt (Peachum) Credit: Theatre des Bouffes du Nord
Benjamin Purkiss (Macheath) and his gang Credit: Theatre des Bouffes du Nord

The first sounds are of sirens and barking police dogs. Sleeping figures awake and throw themselves across a stage filled with the cardboard boxes that are homes to the homeless. And then, magically, comes a gentle tune from violins, harpsichord and theorbo.

It’s the best moment in the production, a bridge across nearly 300 years, a juxtaposition of early C18th ballads and the present day, a statement that everything has changed, nothing has changed.

John Gay’s play was a big hit in 1728, a cynical exposé of venality that offered the immorality of low-life criminals as a parallel to the hypocrisy of the elite. Even Prime Minister Robert Walpole came, but saw to it that its sequel was banned.

W S Gilbert’s social satires pale in comparison, but in the 1920s, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill preserved Gay's bitter invective when they reinvented his piece as The Threepenny Opera—famous for "Mack the Knife"—and now director Robert Carsen has come up with a Beggar’s Opera ‘for our own turbulent times’.

It was filmed at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, shortly before that company took the production to the 2018 Edinburgh Festival, and almost on the doorstep of the makeshift encampment of migrants in tents and sleeping bags that had grown up nearby.

Ian Burton splatters the text with expletives in bringing the text up-to-date—or at least up to 2018—with references to Brexit, the Royal wedding and a PM in tiger-skin shoes, but the best dialogue remains in the original.

"Since laws were made for every degree," sings Benjamin Purkiss as the condemned Macheath, "to curb vice in others as well as me, Why ain’t we got better company upon Tyburn tree?"

Highwayman Macheath has married Polly Peachum but been shopped by her parents with the connivance of the bent chief of police Lockit (later seen snorting coke with Peachum from the handle of a baby’s pram) for the reward money. Luckily for Macheath, Lockit’s daughter Lucy is also in love with him and plots his release. Finally, with a middle finger firmly pointing upwards toward the establishment, the entire criminal fraternity take over the government.

Despite its title, this really isn’t an opera at all, more of an anti-opera whose targets included Mr Handel and the affairs of gods and the nobility. In a dig at contemporary audiences, the pickpocket Filch talks of robbing an opera-goer in the gents’ at Covent Garden.

No original scores exist for the ballads that accompanied the action and indeed one hears the casually-dressed, onstage Les Art Florissant for less than 40 minutes in the two-hour recording. There is nothing very special about the pieces they play, but it was delightful to see their venerable leader William Christie in a hoodie, knocking back a tumbler of Mrs Peachum’s gin. And the mobile phone ringtone played on the harpsichord was the wittiest moment in a production otherwise lacking originality.

Gay’s conception did not require trained singers but, the evident talent for breakdancing notwithstanding, some of the all-British cast might find it hard to meet the demands of musical theatre. Accents wander too—it’s a case of West End plays East End by way of a London bus tour.

The pick of the bunch are the Peachums—Robert Burt the bullet-headed bully, the splendid Beverley Klein as an ebullient Mrs P and Kate Batter as Polly, who hits the right notes vocally and dramatically.

For the handsome Purkiss, one hopes his face may be his fortune, for he struggled at times with intonation and delivery. Olivia Brereton attacked Lucy’s songs with spirit but without the voice to match, and the potentially dramatic final act confrontation between her and Macheath fell flat.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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