Sunday 25 January 2009

Beggar Off! (The anatomy of a train wreck: The Beggar's Opera at Covent Garden)

I've seen some pretty awful productions over the years, and, as I think back, three stand out. There was Scottish Opera's 2006 Don Giovanni, which had so much promise given the return of the triumphant Ring team of conductor Richard Armstrong and director Tim Albery, but which ended up being an invisibly lit, musically tedious evening, mainly marked out by Peter Savidge's Don discarding pair after pair of white gloves in a piece of patronising and ineffective symbolism. Then there was Glyndebourne's 2007 Matthew Passion where Katie Mitchell's inexplicable decision to move the action to Beslan, and worse besides, found a partner in Richard Egarr's limp musical direction.

Perhaps an even greater achievement was made by Polish director Krystian Lupa who, despite not speaking the language, directed Chekov's Three Sisters in English at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival in one of the most torturous productions it has been my pain to endure (and one which had me, and others like me, who decided the the only way to survive was to see the dramatic irony in lines such as "Beyond this point, disaster", described by Michael Billington as a philistine and by the Metro as a moron, though I notice that Billington went on to give it two stars, which seems pretty derisive to me). I struggled to fight the urge to heckle, though someone elsewhere in the Kings twice had to shout for them to speak more loudly. In his balcony, Lupa sat beating a drum for his actors to keep pace to and swigging what looked like vodka. It was beyond surreal.

So why this trip down memory lane? Well, it was prompted by a half-time question at tonight's performance of The Beggar's Opera at Covent Garden as to whether this was, in fact, the very worst thing any of us had ever sat through.

Certainly, things did not augur well from the outset. In common with the last time I went to the Lindbury (their basement studio theatre), to see Powder Her Face, sales of programmes were rather poorly managed with just one salesman for the whole theatre, leading to a huge queue. Still, at least this time round they didn't run out, which caused a baffling ten minute delay as they searched for more. However, it does seem a little poor at this level. Poorer as I descended to my seat and found that row P, at the back of the stalls, is shorter than the others, though the same price, and thus extraordinarily cramped if, like me, you have long legs. I think it's outrageous to charge the same when some seats have more room. An excess of dry ice hung ominously in the air.

The stage had been cut to shreds, with a faux auditorium from the main house having been constructed. This was a doubly weird choice given how little room there is down there to begin with; talk about shooting yourself in the foot. An usher, in the role of the beggar, delivered the opening narration. Given Sirena Tocco is credited in this role, one must assume she is either an actor or a singer, though so poor was the delivery of her lines, that it was entirely plausible she really was just an unlucky member of the front of house team who'd lost a bet after a long night in the pub. The programme indicates that her strength is in dance and choreography, so perhaps she was just massively out of her element. But wait, you may be thinking, why expend so much energy and venom on the beggar which is, after all, a tiny part. And so, usually, it is. No so in director Justin Way's inept hands. No, as Peachum takes to the stage from the faux auditorium, she lights his way with her torch and spends much of the rest of the evening haunting the stage looking appalled as the actors go about their business and as though she doesn't have a clue what to do. Well, if she's reading this and wondering, the answer to that question is to leave the stage and not come back until you have another line at the end. Then, during the overture, members of the chorus filed in doing their best impressions of badly behaved audience members.

It got worse: things had been updated. Now, I'm not against that in principle, some of the best productions I've witnessed have done some updating (see Scottish Opera's biker-chick Walkure). Here things were more problematic. The characters become east-end chavs, and the cast grapple with the accents with, to put it politely, mixed success: Leah-Marian Jones sounds very curious as Polly Peachum and Tom Randle doesn't bother at all as Macheath. To make matters worse, they then sing (not especially well or beautifully) in nothing remotely resembling their spoken accents. The result is somewhere between absurd and unintentionally hilarious, no more so than with Sarah Fox's Lucy Lockit, whose best Vicky Pollard impression is about as far from her singing voice as it is possible to be.

More bizarre work is at hand from choreographer Steve Elias who manages to make a bunch of prostitutes move as unsexily as can be possible (including one dressed, for reasons passing understanding, in a yellow jump suit, a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill). Certainly, she didn't use her nunchaku to visit well earned vengeance upon the production team. Action progressed to HMP Covent Garden for act II, where an interesting metal detector was set off by Macheath's ankle tagging device (in place of handcuffs) but not by the bevy of chained dancers whose reason for being there at all was opaque, to say the least. Then, as Lucy sang of revenge she photocopied her bottom. Quite how this was meant to have the desired effect was never made clear. But it did fit with the complete lack of inspiration in Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays' designs.

The second half, weighing in at over eighty minutes, was all the more of a slog, in the numbing seats. Frances McCafferty, somewhat past it, was frankly embarrassing as Diana Trapes. Google seems to indicate she is actually Scottish, yet her accent seemed a horribly unnatural caricature. It's hard to say that anyone stood out most in terms of bad performance, the thing was so uniformly awful, but she came close. Of course, one doesn't want to be too harsh on the cast. Work is work, actors and singers who haven't yet made the big time must earn their bread somehow, and it must be pretty soul destroying to have to go though as badly conceived and directed a fiasco as this night after night. Is it any wonder that there seems to be little approaching enthusiasm from anybody? Lucky for them, and unsuspecting punters, a week from now it will all be over.

At the end things just got absurd (in the manner of the finale of the Prisoner, differing mainly in not having been preceded by sixteen hours of genius). Following Macheath's reprieve, the whole chorus joined the stage for a dance whose choreography couldn't easily have seemed more out of place. The men of the gang waltzed round with blow up sex dolls and, right at the end, two of the whores rushed one with prams. Then, something vaguely yellow in colour popped out of the prison toilet: what it was, and what it may have signified, is beyond my ken. Thankfully, though, it did mean that the ordeal was finally at an end and we could all go home and enjoy a much needed drink.

And what of the audience response? At best it was polite. When the actors called out to the audience to judge whether Macheath deserved a reprieve, answer came there none. I fought the temptation to yell for the hanging of the production team from the noose that had been conveniently lowered. The script is very funny in places, but there were no more than a handful of titters from a handful of people. Applause was lukewarm with many people, your correspondent included, declining to show any appreciation at all.

But I haven't mentioned the music. After all, many a poor production is offset by this, the recent Mackerras/ENO Vec Makropulos managed to still be one of the most powerful nights I've spent in a theatre, despite glaring flaws in the production. The Britten reworking of Johann Christoph Pepusch's score is used (Gay's libretto is retained), and this was my main reason for attending; whether or not the performance is to blame isn't clear, but it didn't come over as his finest work. Sadly, the playing was nothing to write home about either. Other reviews in the mainstream press have suggested that the chamber ensemble (drawn from the City of London Sinfonia), under the baton of Christian Curnyn, are the evening's one redeeming feature. We have no sympathy with that view. His conducting seemed lacklustre, with little apparent rapport between pit and stage. Worse, he seemed to take almost everything at a near uniform tempo (with a slight exception in one or two numbers in the second half). Certainly, it must be hard for a young conductor to find inspiration with such a calamity going on above, and he had stepped following the death of Hickox, who was to conduct it. Nonetheless, I will not be hurrying to hear him again.

One doesn't wish to speak ill of the recently dead; however, it is noted that there were charges against Hickox recently of nepotism, and of appointing people on the basis of factors other than talent, while he was musical director of Opera Australia. I mention it because the director and designers hail from there, have little else to their names, and the programme introduction from Elaine Padmore (Covent Garden's Director of Opera) notes that Hickox had been very much involved in casting and planning.

A little while ago we inaugurated a couple awards (The Jose Serebrier Award for Inappropriate Encores and The Rachel Barton Pine Award for Encores that Alone Justify the Ticket Price) so named for their first recipients. Along slightly different lines, I now propose The Niles Crane 'Sprinkling Hand' Award for Production Teams who Should Never be Permitted to Work in that Capacity Ever Again, so named for this wonderful quote, memorably uttered by the great David Hyde Pierce on the classic show Fraiser after a waiter does not make his coffee to the required standard:

Can you believe the incompetence of that man? I very clearly asked for a whisper of cinnamon, he's given me a full-throated shout! There are countries in this world where they would lop off his sprinkling hand!

This first award going to messrs Way, Kovac, Hays and Elias: congratulations to all involved, we remain somewhat shellshocked at just how bad a creation you have managed to concoct. Amateurs could do a better job than this. Indeed, while we were at school, I was in the production team of a staging that was in every respect more enjoyable and satisfying. I think it's hard to put it better than Kieron Quirke, writing in the Evening Standard, and giving the evening a mere one star, a rating that seems a little high:

Pay your local hobo a tenner to croon Nessun Dorma and you’ll have a Beggar’s Opera more coherent and gratifyingly shorter than this offering.

If you have tickets, ask for your money back, stick them on ebay or burn them to offset your rising gas bill. Even running them through the shedder would be a use orders of magnitude more productive and enjoyable. For the last two weeks I have been in pitched battle with BT, who have displayed the most staggering incompetence at every turn when asked to perform the simplest of transactions. I am still without an internet connection at home (or, less importantly, a telephone). They lie and screw up at every opportunity. If you do have a spare ticket, please send it to the BT senior management, knowing they'd had to endure the evening would feel like justice.


Anonymous said...

This long and rambling and, to be frank, terminally ill review tells us more about the writer than the production.

I saw the very same thing, and had an enjoyable evening at a well-priced and perfectly satisfactory venue.

"I've seen some pretty awful productions over the years" it begins. As a journalist I would not recommend you be so cynical and negative right at the start. It wins you no admiration.

I recommend that if you are so often disappointed you should stay at home and avoid these negative experiences. Then we will be spared such miserable reviews.

Jeanette Clarke

Anonymous said...

Actually I am glad someone said that! I didn't have the nerve but felt the same way.

Tam Pollard said...


Each to their own, of course, and as ever one person's turkey is another's revelation. I'm glad you enjoyed this production (a few people clearly did - though on the night we were there they were few and far between).

The review is, to some degree, long and rambling, which is the Where's Runnicles house style. If you want short reviews where every word is at a premium the mainstream press already caters to that and I have no interest in attempting to duplicate it. Perhaps it says a lot about me, but I think I was far from alone amongst the audience in not being impressed (I note the one star review in the Standard); I also feel there is plenty of description of the production.

You quote my opening sentence and then proceed to misrepresent it. In the three years the site has been running we have reviewed 77 live things that could be said to have productions (be they opera, theatre or musical theatre - i.e. leaving concerts, film and such like to one side) not to mention the very many productions I've been to in the years before and the ones since that I haven't written up. It would be astonishing if, amongst that number, I had managed not to attend "some pretty awful productions". But "some" by no means suggests all, many, most or often. There are any number of rave reviews to be found on this site.

However, this production did stand out, and eighteen months later continues to stand out, as one of the very worst evenings I have spent in a theatre (though Actus Tragicus gave it a run for its money). For this reason I make no apology for starting in such a negative manner - it is by no means typical of my writing, but the show was by no means typical of my experience. Given I found it so poor, I think it is entirely right to set it in context by comparing it to some other terrible shows I have witnessed. This is, of course, a personal reaction, but that is all any criticism ever can be.

Of course, if one knew something would be terrible, one might well stay home. Sadly I have not been endowed with the ability to see the future. I have more hits than misses and so continue to attend many things.

If you wish to be spared my reviews, you have simply not to read my site. Many people do, and many enjoy them.

Tam Pollard

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