October 21, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Beggar’s Opera (Vanishing Point) @ The Belgrade Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.belgrade.co.uk/site/scripts/show_details.php?showID=367

A recurring complaint raised at the recent reviewing conference was the tendency of reviews to prioritise directorial concept over all else, at the detriment of detailed discussion of acting, design, text and other elements. It’s a fair complaint, though perhaps inevitable when discussing productions of 16th, 17th and 18th century plays. Reviewers are looking for what sets this production apart from its long performance history, and a ‘concept’ forms a natural way into discussion of that performance. At the same time, however, it’s not always the reviewer’s fault. A great many contemporary productions choose to prioritise their concept above all else, for better or worse, making it difficult to discuss much else. Matthew Lenton, in the programme for Vanishing Point’s new take on The Beggar’s Opera*, makes explicit that the company start with story and image rather than text, with the creation of their conceptual world providing the centre of their reimagining. It seems only appropriate, then, to take that concept as the basis of any review.

This Opera was set in a near-future underworld, a pit of sand and refuse, with a ladder leading up to a hole in the ceiling through which could be glimpsed a utopian world where fabulously-dressed "celebrities" lived in extravagant fashion. The underworld, home to a network of criminals, corrupt cops and prostitutes, literally fed off this upper world, whose inhabitants regularly threw their cast-offs into the hole. Scrabbling over designer labels and robbing the rich, while at the same time angrily railing against the greed of the upper world, the company created a parasitic society imagined to be the inevitable conclusion of our current obsession with celebrity. Crossing between these worlds was Sandy Grierson’s Macheath, head cutthroat of a gang of thieves and tabloid sensation in the upper world, where celebrities pored over the latest titbits of news about him in the glossies.

The satire was clear, and for much of the play, far too much so. The vacuous, self-absorbed, detached and obscenely rich celebrity culture is an easy target, yet the script persisted in spelling out their targets in so crude a manner that it rather undercut the powerful dramatic potential of the set up. For the first third of the play, with Macheath concealed behind a gasmask, the world was introduced to us by a procession of flamboyantly exaggerated figures: the vampish Mrs Peachum, the master-criminal Mr Peachum, the oddly comic chorus of masked thieves and Victoria Bavister’s Polly, first introduced in a silent sex scene with the disguised Macheath. It was a world presented rather than lived, with the characters performing the functions required to get across the message that this was a corrupt world of sex, swearing, amorality and lies.

The Beggar’s Opera publicity art

The problem with this is that an exaggerated world of vice works when the setting is contemporary, giving the audience a warped view of modern life that allows the satire to work on a principle of recognisability. However, by setting this in a fantastical future world full of crazy leather-chic and catwalk-inspired costumes, interactive multimedia frenzies, intrusive police cameras (stolen directly from War of the Worlds) and robot prostitutes, the rules had already been irrevocably broken. The exaggerated characterisations in a contemporary setting, or more restrained performances in a fantasy future seting, would have made the point more effectively, but by severing all connections with its audience, the play’s impact was sorely reduced, leaving the objects of its satire too far removed for us to care.

Thankfully, once the play got going, these problems began to be tackled. Key to this were Grierson’s Macheath and Elspeth Brodie’s Lucy Lockit. Lucy’s storyline performed the crucial task of allowing the satire to fade into the background, becoming part of the fabric rather than the explicit point of the dialogue. Her pregnancy, her inability to navigate through Macheath’s network of lies, and her spirited attempts at vengeance on both Macheath and Polly (always entertaining) gave the play a narrative strand and focus which gave the audience something to invest in. The world that Vanishing Point had created was fascinating, but needed this grittier and more recognisable narrative to sustain it.

Macheath, meanwhile, was introduced in a similar manner to Gay’s original. Appearing as a semi-mythical figure in the background for much of the play’s introductory section, the mask eventually came off as he shared a love-scene with Polly, and gradually the play reoriented itself around Macheath as its central figure. Grierson was excellent in the part, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to point out the ridiculousness of his own situations, as when he was being attacked simultaneously by Polly and by Lucy. The strength of his performance meant that he overcame potential pitfalls set up the play’s earlier weaknesses. Most pertinently, in creating a world of extreme sexual license, where even Polly was prepared to use sex as a weapon and both Peachum parents had open affairs, Macheath’s own notorious addiction to sex was in danger of being rendered unremarkable. However, Grierson brought out an emotionally devastating side to what increasingly became imagined as an illness. At one point, desperately trying to escape, he made his way up the ladder towards the upper world, but was distracted by the sight of a prostitute below. In a silent sequence, he literally struggled against himself to conquer the last few rungs, before surrendering and sliding down the ladder to fulfil desires he couldn’t avoid. Where we might expect Macheath’s weakness for women to be centred round an overly casual approach to women, here he was reimagined as the man for whom sex actually meant the most; each affair was deeply felt and urgent, while sex was little more than a commercial and political maneuvere for everyone else.

A word, here, about the excellent music, written and performed live by A Band Called Quinn. Perhaps best loosely described as Garbage fronted by Deborah Harry, the band were fully integrated into the world of the play and provided a soundtrack of songs-as-commentary throughout. Vocalist Louise Quinn was absolutely spellbinding, walking in and out of the play world as one of Macheath’s women, a thief and the ‘voice’ of many of the main characters. The songs evoked waves of emotion swamped by corruption and the inability to express real feeling, and provided the emotional ballast which the play sorely needed at times. It’s rare to see a play incorporate original music so well, and as a collaboration between band and creative team it was sublime. A valedictory rendering of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile as Macheath bid farwell to the world, with video projections of all the cast waving goodbye, provided the highlight of the evening in a deeply comic yet genuinely moving moment.

As the play drew to its close, in fact, it became quite wonderful. Throughout, a television reporter on a screen had given live updates on Macheath’s captures/escapes, while professing her own lust for the anti-hero. As Macheath was taken to his hanging, though, she broke off one of her reports, marching off-screen and onto the stage. In a skilful rewrite of John Gay’s experimentation, she had decided that she didn’t like this ending and, as she was the reporter, she could decide what happened. In real life, she said, Macheath would have gotten away – and she could decide what real life was. Inspector Lockit meekly obeyed, and a happy(ish) ending was enacted on stage, with confetti, the Peachums welcoming Macheath into their family, Lucy accepting the situation and, ultimately, a group orgy-cum-fight in a pile of sand. This anarchic ending was entertaining, and fed neatly into the production’s concern with celebrity culture and the relatively deep question of what real life really is in a world where life is lived through the media. It’s a question that begged more stage-time, and finally served to justify the key concepts of the design, to which end it was disappointing that it hadn’t been raised earlier.

A play of mixed parts, then. An overly self-conscious set-up and a heavy-fisted approach in the scripting to the objects of satire got the play off to a slow and superficial start, that with the introduction of some engaging characters and a brave ending ultimately redeemed itself. I’ll quickly also mention Damir Todorovic’s excellent Sergeant Lockit, another exaggerated individual who was entirely fascinating: sexually ambivalent, cross-dressing, sadistic and corrupt, providing a perfect antithesis to Macheath. Most importantly, however, this production showed some guts and flair in reimagining a play that is now, perhaps, more relevant than ever. Some sloppiness in the execution, but enjoyable and thought-provoking none the less.

* Yes, The Beggar’s Opera is not Renaissance drama, it’s 18th century, so technically it doesn’t fall within this blog’s remit. The rules are mine to break, though, and I love the play.

Posted in Theatre review