Wednesday 22 August 2018

EIF 2018 - The Beggar's Opera at the Kings, or, Savagely Satirical? If Only It Were

I have a soft spot for The Beggar's Opera. More years ago now than I care to remember I played Peachum in a school production with a band led by the chemistry teacher who was also a harpsichord player. However, having now seen two productions I'm coming to the conclusion that it may be one of those shows it's more fun to be in than to actually watch.

This "new version" by Ian Burton and Robert Carsen makes a not terribly convincing attempt to update the action to the present day. The updating to my mind never wholly harmonises with the period music (and the Covert Garden staging of the Britten version had the same problem) - I never really quite believed that these hardened criminals would stop to sing to the accompaniment of the harpsichord and archlute. The revision of the spoken text consists of the standard high volume of swearing (which equally as usual quickly loses impact through overuse), references to contemporary drugs and sexual practices, and a few feeble jokes about Brexit, immigration, and other current matters of debate. The whole approach has a somewhat strained feel of grown ups trying to show they are still down with the kids. The alterations to the sung lyrics are more bizarre - I know these pretty well - and I was at a loss to account for some of the changes - for example why substitute "death" for "fate" or "leaving" for "quitting". The changes only fitfully to my mind made the lyrics more comprehensible to a modern audience, and at other times seemed to leave unchanged things that struck me as obscure, but in any case I'm not convinced of the argument put forward by Jeremy Barlow in his programme note that Gay's "meaning is often hard to grasp." To my mind the plot and the issues at stake are pretty clear in the original despite occasional archaic language.

Carsen's production is agreeably straightforward, as opposed to the Royal Opera Linbury show where one regularly wondered why on earth things were happening. But, at the same time there's nothing especially original about it - it's simply a solid decent piece of staging. Rebecca Howell's choreography provides the most exciting visual moments, with some striking dance moves from members of the chorus. However Carsen struck me as undecided as to whether to take the show seriously or not, so just as the satire is weak, so the relationships - despite the best efforts of the ensemble - rarely made me care. The overall effect for me was a feeling of blandness.

Musically matters are on much stronger ground - despite some disconnection between a mostly musical theatre trained ensemble and a period band. I thought the strongest individual performance was Olivia Brereton's Lucy Lockit who is directed in a refreshingly less caricatured way than many of the others. Benjamin Purkiss is a fine committed Macheath. Kate Batter's Polly is costumed and directed in a way that seems designed to remove any sympathy one might have for her, but works hard to give the part life. Robert Burt's Peacham and Kraig Thornber's Lockit are at their best in their duets. To the side of the stage and into the boxes, once they've removed their instruments from cardboard boxes, Les Arts Florissants give a spirited account of the score, though conductor Florian Carre was occasionally guilty of not keeping orchestra and singers quite together.

In sum this is a solid piece of music theatre. But no more than that - though some friends enjoyed it far more than I did and the audience response at the performance I attended was warm. I find it hard to see on the basis of this or the dismal La Maladie de la Mort why Theatre des Bouffes du Nord is so celebrated. Perhaps their third show The Prisoner which I see later this week will provide the answer.

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