THE Beggar’s Opera, first performed in London in 1728, is the sole surviving example of a once-popular form of theatre, the satirical ballad opera. So it is difficult for a modern audience to know quite how to react to it. We see a bunch of low-life thieves, drunkards and whores, motivated mainly by lust and greed, fighting like rats in a sack to achieve their selfish ends. Their lives, to quote Hobbes, are nasty, brutish and short.
At the end of the play the audience is offered a choice: should Macheath, the alpha male of this gallery of reprobates, be reprieved from his richly-deserved death sentence or should the playwright give us a moral? We are supposed to shout for a reprieve, which delivers an unearned and meretricious happy ending. I’d have been genuinely interested in being given a moral; what are we supposed to take from this glimpse into the sewers of human society?
The Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s production certainly looked a treat. Summoned by Jerome Swan’s authoritative Beggar to the Wincombe Park Recycling Centre, our cast of contemporary low-lifes arrived and attired themselves on stage in Kim Pragnell’s outstandingly beautiful and practical eighteenth-century costumes. The set they inhabited, also designed by Kim, could have equally well housed Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’. A teeming, messy, lived-in heap of recycled tat had been lovingly assembled, topped with Brechtian placards telling us exactly where we were. Unfortunately, the Arts Centre’s stage is irredeemably narrow, so all this detail and clutter had the effect of constricting still further the area in which it was possible to actually move about and act. But it certainly looked wonderful, and was greatly enhanced by Gordon Ewartdean’s moody and dramatic lighting, mainly from the sides rather than the front, so shadows formed and brightly-lit characters downstage stood out brilliantly from the upstage gloom, (although unfortunately one or two of the cast had a tendency to stray into the gloom and become invisible at times).
Musical Director Ruth McKibbin used Benjamin Britten’s 1948 version of the music. This re-orchestrates and re-harmonises the eighteenth-century ballads and airs of the original into a much spikier and acerbic sound. Six woodwind instruments carried most of the top lines over a foundation of low strings and piano, and the variety of tones and combinations Britten achieves from this chamber-sized group was constantly intriguing. The band was placed right upstage, behind the cast and the clutter, and the resulting balance of instruments and singers was ideal. Britten’s sharper sound seemed to me a much more appropriate accompaniment to the grubby deceptions and betrayals of the plot than the harmonious and whistleable original score.
The fact that the singing was sometimes less than polished didn’t worry me within the overall concept: these are beggars having a stab at doing an opera rather than pros, after all.
So the director’s concept, the design elements and the sound were all first-rate and in place. But it has to be said that the quality of the acting performances within this rich frame lacked consistency. There were highlights: one thinks of the cartoonish but highly-effective turns by Janet Botterill as ‘Mrs’ Peacham and Hugo Purdue as the brutal and corrupt jailer Lockit. Both of Macheath’s ‘wives’, the feisty Lucy Lockit (Joni Clowrey) and the love-lorn Polly Peacham (Anne-Louise Richards) acted and sang well. And the choruses, both male and female, were excellent and strongly characterised, with the men’s show-stopping ‘Fill Every Glass’ given a lusty and confident a capella performance.
However, I felt some of the other casting decisions were puzzling, as was the decision to leave uncut a few over-wordy scenes which did little to add to the pace of the production.
To sum up, I think we North Dorset folk should be grateful that our local Arts Centre has the courage and imagination to stage such an ambitious, thoughtful and original production. It could be argued that more was bitten off than was chewed but my own view is that it is far better to have tried with less-than-perfectly consistent success than never to have tried at all.