Cops, robbers, and prostitutes take to the stage in this fresh, subversive take on The Beggar’s Opera.
The Edinburgh International Festival doesn’t generally go in for jukebox musicals. Tempting though it is to imagine, it seems unlikely that Mamma Mia! or We Will Rock You will be gracing the Royal Lyceum or Festival theatres mid-August any time soon.
But 2018 is different: EIF is playing host to a show that is arguably the grandfather of all musicals. Before anyone organises demonstrations of outrage, it should be pointed out that the work in question dates from 1728 and is by the esteemed Georgian playwright John Gay. Furthermore, the word “opera” is in the title.
Yet a jukebox musical is absolutely what The Beggar’s Opera is, insists director Robert Carsen. “It’s really a play interrupted by songs, a musical in the truest sense of the word.
It’s utterly subversive. That’s one of the great things about it.”
Although The Beggar’s Opera has become part of history as one of the few early eighteenth-century dramatic works to be regularly revived, we would do well to remember how revolutionary it once was, says Carsen. The story of its creation has become legendary: Gay – then a conspicuously unsuccessful poet – had the idea of writing a script satirising Italian opera by Handel and the like, all the rage in London at the time, in the hope of making a fast buck.
It was a radical idea. Instead of starring goddesses and epic heroes, this new work would feature a motley crew of prostitutes, gaolers and spivs, focusing on the criminal and sexual antics of a highwayman called Macheath. And rather than commissioning a composer to write fresh music, Gay simply ransacked popular folktunes and songs. The finished piece took aim at everyone from political hypocrisy to the corruption of the legal system. “There are no sacred cows,” says Carsen. “Morality is turned upside-down.”
The Beggar’s Opera was a wild success. The first production ran for an unheard-of 62 performances – the Mamma Mia! of its day. Indeed, Gay’s producer was able to build a new theatre in Covent Garden from the proceeds. In an irony that might have tickled the playwright, that theatre went on to become the Royal Opera House.
Carsen’s new version makes a few tweaks. The setting is still London, but we’re three centuries later. Instead of breeches and bodices, his criminals and molls are kitted out in hoodies and pleather miniskirts. The action occurs in a warehouse full of stolen goods. Perhaps more controversially, the text has had a refresher. Eagle-eared listeners might hear phrases such as “strong and stable” and
“for the many, not the few” flitting past.
“You have to keep it alive,” Carsen argues. “So many of the things in it are topical – references to eighteenth-century events. A lot of that gets lost. We wanted the references to be to now.”
Purists may be relieved to hear that the music is very much intact – as indeed it should be, given that the renowned Baroque specialist William Christie and musicians from Les Arts Florissants are the house band. “We’ve taken a fresh look at the orchestration, and changed a few words, but the tunes are so wonderful that you wouldn’t want to interfere.”
That said, there might still be the odd surprise. “You might hear hints of Kurt Weill,” Carsen adds. “But that’s in the spirit of the piece. It’s like eighteenth-century jazz, in a way. It needs to feel improvisatory and fluid.”
Anyway, as its vigorous life on stage suggests – from Weill’s scabrous Weimar-era reimagining The Threepenny Opera (1928) to Vaclav Havel’s anti-Soviet Czech vesion (1976) – some things never change. The Beggar’s Opera will always be full of venal politicians and bent coppers; in its cheerful, topsy-turvy celebration of that world, Gay’s masterwork invariably has something to say. “That’s one of the best things about the piece. It has this amazing energy. And it’s utterly merciless.”
And Carsen appears to have a few surprises left up his sleeve. After opening earlier this year at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris, the show is currently making its way around Europe. Along the way, the director has been unable to resist making a few tweaks for local audiences.
There’s a rumour, I say, that some topical Scottish political references might yet be inserted. Any comment? Carsen pauses, tactfully. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
WHERE & WHEN
The Beggar’s Opera,King’s Theatre, 16-19 August, 7.30pm, from £16