The Beggar’s Opera, ‘the most popular play of the eighteenth century’, premiered in London in January 1728 and ran for 62 consecutive performances, then the longest run in theatrical history. The popularity of John Gay’s ballad opera derived as much from its satirising of the eighteenth-century vogue for Italian opera, with its lofty arias and equally-lofty heroes and heroines, as from its use of popular tunes and ordinary people as characters.
Well, ordinary if by the term one means the womanisers and whores and thieves and corrupt jailers who populate Gay’s opera. The tone of the tale is established early on by the Swiftian gangmaster Mr Peachum, who introduces what effectively amounts to the moral of the story as his personal motto—‘what’s in it for me?’ From then on, it’s corruption all the way down. For enough cash, prostitutes aid in the wrongful imprisonment of our ostensible hero, Macheath, albeit a hero who’s as feckless as he is faithless—he seems to have impregnated or married every woman who crosses his path. Peachum shares lines of cocaine with crocked policeman Lockit before scheming to have his daughter’s rich gangster of a husband—none other than our own Macheath—murdered for money.
Although Robert Carsen and Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s new production claims to have been updated to modern day, the Brexit and royal wedding jokes can’t mask what ultimately amounts to bizarre anachronism. Contemporary references might be littered throughout the script—a gag about “strong and stable government” goes down particularly well—but Peachum’s East End cockney swagger and caricature prostitute Jenny Diver in her black pleather catsuit are straight out of a 1980’s cliché. Throw in the period panache of musicians Les Arts Florissants and the whole production is a modern-day take that’s outdated before it even begins.
Having said that, this is the Bouffes du Nord and I’m prepared to give their Beggar’s Opera the benefit of assuming decisions have been made via careful deliberation rather than happenstance, not least because their production is vastly entertaining. Deeply, profoundly ridiculous, but an enjoyable night at the theatre all the same. Indeed, I can certainly understand why, following its 1728 opening, one critic wrote: ‘The Beggar’s Opera…has met with a general Applause, insomuch that…it has made Rich [the theatre’s director] very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich.’ This production of Gay’s money-maker may not be very modern, but it is very diverting.
The Beggar’s Opera was performed as part of the Edinburgh International Festival 2018. Click here for more details.