March 8, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Convict’s Opera (Out of Joint/Sydney Theatre Company) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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Out of Joint’s new production The Convict’s Opera is a bit of an oddity. A group of convicts on board a ship decide to put on a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, complete with songs drawn from folk traditions and, occasionally, classic rock n’ roll numbers. The play follows the company through auditions and rehearsal process, tracking the evolving production as the ship nears Australia, while also following the ‘real’ lives of the convicts as they prepare themselves for a new life.

As even that brief synopsis might suggest, the play is best understood as a sequel/prequel to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, the play which Out of Joint originally premiered back in 1988. The links are made explicit when convict Bett Rock threatens to leave the play and join a rival group of convicts, who she has heard are planning to put on The Recruiting Officer– the play-within-a-play in OCG. Stephen Jeffreys’ text is indebted to Wertenbaker’s in more than just situation though. As the players grow to identify with their characters, so they start to bring into their real lives the characteristics and confidence associated with their parts, finding in theatre something better than the lives they have hitherto lived. Even in structure, the two plays are clearly linked: fragments of text are interrupted by intruding officers, rehearsals descend into arguments between actors and the action is interspersed by short below-decks monologues in which various characters tell more about their crimes or of life on ship.

The production thus lived in the shadow of its famous forebear, which was something of a shame as it suffered by comparison. On its own merits, though, Convict’s Opera was an interesting and often funny production, intelligent while still remaining accessible. The audience were thrown in at the deep end with the on-stage introduction of John Gay himself and the opening scene of Beggar’s Opera, complete with melodramatic acting style and 18th century text. As opposed to OCG, we were treated to extended (and chronologically sequenced) sections of the play-within-a-play, thus setting up the tricky challenge of sustaining an audience’s interest in two different stories. Inevitably, the story of Macheath, Polly et. al. ultimately suffered, peetering out as the story of the convicts took over in the final third of the play, with only resonances from the inner play staying alive. However, for most of the play the production was successful at maintaining the dual narratives – no small feat.

I was surprised to find that the most obviously comic twists in the plot were the sections I enjoyed least. The importation of modern songs ("I Fought the Law", "You’re So Vain", "(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles" etc.) was initially funny, but the extracts were rather short and failed to get an atmosphere going. More successful were the folk influenced songs and older lyrics, which were better served by the on-stage instruments (accordions, violins, keys). However, the vocal performances were absolutely wonderful across the board. Doo-wop backing vocals and harmonies added depth to all of the songs, and the lead vocal performances from a musically-trained cast were excellent. Juan Jackson and Ali McGregor, who played Macheath and Polly in the inner play, are both opera-trained and made even familiar melodies exciting and fresh.

The set, a wooden framework of the underside of a ship, was cluttered with barrels, crates and assorted other ship items, giving the company places to sit when not performing in the inner play. At the side of the stage, adding an interesting 18th century theatrical twist, were two ‘boxes’, in which four (un)lucky audience members sat, often being asked to join in with the action. As the convicts celebrated a "crossing-over" ceremony to mark the crossing of the equator, one of the gallants was dragged to centre stage for a shave by the convicts, who had oddly donned fish costumes for the ceremony. There was plenty of other oddness, such as Jackson’s Harry Morton (Macheath), who swam for his freedom at the close of the play, reappeared in speedos from his swim. The various levels of performativity within the play were, however, one of its strongest aspects, the actors slipping between characters with great facility and using their roles in the inner play to further the development of their convict characters.

The performances within Beggar’s Opera were self-consciously melodramatic, with Catherine Russell particularly enjoying herself as Mrs. Peachum, hitting all the right notes of cliche in exaggerated style. Much of the play’s fun came from watching the convicts experiment with theatrical ideas, including the long centrepiece scene which saw Macheath surrounded by the entire cast dressed as women fawning over him. Even this, though, provided the impetus for the play’s director to admit his sexuality to a fellow cast member, an Irish political prisoner, who identified with him as another deviant from state policy. It was in moments like this that the play really found its sense of purpose, bringing out the human stories that underpinned the rehearsals and journey. While there simply wasn’t time to explore all of these (the problem with giving so much time to both narratives), they cumulatively created the impression of a richly detailed world of human suffering. As the boat approached Australia and a mooted mutiny by some of the players was aborted, slowly everyone seemed to have come to some kind of peace with their situation; and hope was provided by Harry’s swim to a kind of freedom, an evocative reimagining of Macheath’s eventual escape.

Director Max Stafford-Clark, a great lover of 18th century theatre, has in this play effectively recreated The Beggar’s Opera for a modern audience, successfully reinventing aspects of the period’s theatricality and environment for today. While it perhaps tried to do a little too much, sacrificing some of its own depth while trying to cram in the modern songs, this was intelligent and imaginative theatre that demanded rewatching to uncover more of the stories woven into its narrative.

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