Lucy Bailey is a director who understands the importance of the vertical in her productions. Her staging of John Gay’s radical ballad opera has a Hogarthian quality. The stage is framed by an imposing structure, half Tyburn gallows and half jungle gym, over which the performers frequently clamber. The crowd scenes, of which there are many, are rich with detail: harlots bawdily posing on pewter dishes, weary prisoners turning a central treadmill. In every corner there is something going on: women lolling with gin bottles in their hands, bodies glimpsed among the trees.
Bailey’s production retains the eighteenth century setting and does not tinker with John Gay’s original text. This is a world of beggars and harlots and thieves, the poor given voice and allowed to storm the stage of Drury Lane. Intended as a one finger salute to popular Italian opera, it’s a celebration of English song: rowdy, raucous and thick with satirical reference.
Charismatic anti-hero Macheath has married Polly Peachum, the daughter of a notorious thief-taker, much to her father’s displeasure. Eventually ending up in Newgate because of his rampant libido, Macheath finds himself torn between two women, between Polly (a role first played by Lavinia Fenton, a onetime prostitute who became the talk of the town following her appearances in The Beggar’s Opera and who would go on to marry a duke) and Lucy, daughter of Lockit, the corrupt Newgate jailor. As they fight over him, Macheath begins to think the noose might provide a welcome escape.
It’s difficult for any production to fully convey how refreshing and subversive Gay’s opera would have been to its original audience. Bailey’s production instead revels in the physical, her cast constantly brawling and thrusting and cursing; David Caves’ Macheath is first seen emerging bare-chested from a bed of writhing female limbs and when Janet Fullerlove’s Mrs Peachum bends to put on her canary yellow stockings she gives the front row an up-skirt eyeful.
There are 69 songs in total, performed live by the City Waites, but they are mostly sung in snippets, making for a bitty experience, especially in the first half; the momentum of the piece only really picks up in the second half when Beverly Rudd’s Lucy clashes (sometimes literally) with Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Polly. Jaspar Britton and Phil Daniels play Peachum and Lockit respectively, each as hard, cruel and corrupt as the other.
William Dudley’s set is dominated by two giant carts, like those which would have transported the condemned to Tyburn. These are both mobile and versatile; they give shape to Polly’s bedroom and the various inns and taverns where the thieves and harlots gather – the twin intoxicants of bed and the bottle – while tipped on their end they stand in for the walls of Newgate prison. The gallows meanwhile hang over everything, a constant reminder of the final destination of many of these characters.
The final scene, with its mass hanging – complete with bodies graphically twitching and spasming – is macabre but ultimately joyous, the morally appropriate ending thrown over in favour of one more in keeping with the operas that were fashionable at the time. Macheath, however, remains an unsympathetic figure; it’s hard for a contemporary audience to feel much sympathy for his plight and this dampens the happy ending.
On opening night the weather seemed amusingly complicit in Bailey’s staging. Following the previous day’s feverish Mediterranean heat and an afternoon of cinematic thunder storms, things abruptly flattened so that this intrinsically English opera played out through a curtain of intermittent drizzle, the Arcadian green of the performance space backgrounded by aggressive, cement skies.