Thomas Gay's The Beggar's Opera, was revived on 20 January at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the ROH in its 1948 realization by Benjamin Britten. Unfortunately, 'revived' is not the term best suited to this production directed by Justin Way.
To put it bluntly, the satirical and meta-theatrical undertones of Gay's original ballad opera were flattened by an overwhelming and often incoherent staging. The use of space was particularly problematic. The performing area included not only the stage proper, but also a section beyond the curtain. Sex dolls dressed as members of the audience (and inexplicably brought on stage for the final applause) were positioned in balconies in this outer area. The chorus, inhabiting both spaces, shifted from embodying the audience itself (and thus sitting silent among the dolls), to acting as a commentary on the action from the balcony (for instance cheering at Polly's fantasies about herself and her husband), and to jumping onto the stage to play their conventional role. The lighting, designed by Aaron Black, did not help to frame the action: white spots of light swayed from one character to another; singers moved to and from violent green-neon areas and shadowy zones. The general effect was bafflement.
In a climax of confusion at the end of the second act, the stage became a grotesque collage of incoherent elements, including female chorus members dressed in Rio Carnival-inspired gaolers' outfits – garish feathers and leather orange uniforms. After having performed a clumsy sex-drenched choreography (they were meant to be seducing prisoner Macheath), they nonchalantly returned to their audience seats up on the balcony. It was (for this spectator, at least) impossible to attach any meaning to such a parade.
The Beggar's Opera relies equally on spoken drama and singing, but in this case neither was particularly effective. Mezzo-sopranos Susan Bickley (Mrs Peachum) and Leah-Marian Jones (Polly) sang with dignity, if not inspiringly. So did soprano Sarah Fox: her Lucy Lockit, an incongruous combination of blonde-wigged grossness and baroque vocal lightness, perhaps did most justice to Britten's composition. Frances McCafferty as Diana Trapes, the glamorous old woman who is bribed to reveal where Macheath is hiding, was the most consistent character. At the beginning of the third act, after the shambolic climax described above, there was a moment of visual calm which McCafferty was able to exploit convincingly. Alas, the male roles did nothing to project themselves as powerful (and therefore farcical) figures. Tom Randle's Macheath was especially weak.
Christian Curnyn's conducting was acceptable although hardly a model of interpretative vigour. The twelve musicians from the City of London Sinfonia seemed not to be enjoying themselves, nor did they bring any enthusiasm to a work that was originally intended to make fun of the operatic conventions and the habits of aristocratic 18th-century England.Only in rare moments did any passion inform their performance. One of these sporadic episodes was Lucy's solo in Act III: as she begged her father to have mercy on her lover Macheath ('O think of your Daughter, and think I'm his Wife!'), for once the orchestra and the stage worked together – although the satirical element, here mocking the love-arias tradition, had (long) disappeared.
At one point, I found myself asking why one of the prostitutes was dressed as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill; but the singing and acting carried on regardless. Even the most regrettable productions can raise interesting questions. These are endless in a work such as this: how can we receive in the present day a piece that was deeply satirical of its age; or how can it relate to the huge history of reception and adaptation, from Bertold Brecht to Václav Havel, from Britten to the 1953 film version; and so on. Unfortunately, though, most of the questions raised by this production were much more prosaic: why did Macheath seem to have jumped straight out of a 1970's musical (greasy hair and glamour togs) while other elements hinted at the late 20th or early 21st centuries? Why did the narrator (Sirena Tocco as the Beggar) insistently appear on stage performing pointless actions? Why was Polly of the same age as her mother, and why did this latter have such a bright soprano voice compared to Polly's dark tones?
The Beggar's Opera carries within itself a tradition of re-interpretation and re-contextualization; and the will to play with conventions was one of Gay's main pursuits. New readings of this work might therefore be thought inherent to its very conception, and a present-day setting is certainly possible. The flaws of this production, then, lay not in the initial artistic decisions but rather in the failure to find a justification for them in any aspects of the final product.
Photo Credits: Johan Persson