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#157 The Beggar’s Opera at Regents Park Open Air Theatre

June 28, 2011
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The dynamic, imaginative set used giant carts to recreate villains' dens and prisons - nooses dangle overhead all the while.

Yesterday, we were off to the Regents Park Open Air theatre, to see The Beggar’s Opera. The theatre itself was as enchantingly green and glowing as ever. The production? Hrmm. Yeah, well. Isn’t it.

The Beggar’s Opera is a 1728 piss-take of trendy classical Italian operas, by John Gay. He wrote it at the suggestion of poetry super-celeb Alexander Pope, who’d had the idea mentioned to him by Gulliver’s Travels author and master satirist Jonathan Swift.

Instead of melodrama involving beautiful people suffering epic fates, The Beggar’s Opera is about scruffy criminals and their no-good whores. There are 69 beer-sodden songs in total, and most don’t seem to last over a minute. As such, it feels a little bit less like a traditional opera than Transformers 3 does. It’s an anti-opera.

So what’s this production like? It has a good root around the source material. There’s lots of running around, swashbuckling, screaming, crying, skirt-lifting, topless males, drinking, scuffling and so on. Someone drinks a raw egg. The singing is serviceable, but no tune will lodge in your head amongst the avalanche of mini-tunes.

What it isn’t, is funny. The audience weren’t laughing along at any point – more peering concernedly at the action and trying to follow the language. Hey, I blame John Gay, rather than this production. This is a period piece now; it’s not surprisingthat Brecht adapted it into the Threepenny Opera in 1928. The main thrust of the satire – that courtiers are as wicked as criminals – doesn’t really work any more, even if our sentiments about hypocricial higher-ups are still the same. It’s all just soooo 1728, dahling.

For me, this production lacked the lunatic edge that would have turned it into a huge bag of laughs. There aren’t gags as such in the script – no cheesy Shakespearean puns or surreal flights of fancy or cutting witticisms – so the humour needs to derive from the characters themselves. But these guys were taking themselves just a smidgen too seriously to really let loose. Only good ole Phil Daniels’ surprise appearance as the jail keeper Lockit seems to have the manic ridiculousness these fleabitten characters need. You can’t root for any of these nasty bastards, you see, and since the main scoundrel Macheath is played straight rather than trickster-funny, you don’t really care whether he ‘scapes the hangman’s noose or swings.

As the criminal Macheath’s day of doom approaches, the audience is asked to cheer to get him pardoned. “HANG ‘IM!” we screamed. “STRING ‘IM UP!” Not sure that was the response they wanted.

So does Jack Kemp get to dangle Macheath off Tyburn Tree? You’ll have to go and see.

http://openairtheatre.org/production/thebeggarsopera

(Bonus wikipedia factoid: John Gay wrote a sequel in which the female lead Polly went off to the Caribbean and became a pirate. Maybe that’s funnier! …Nah.)

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