Review: The Beggar's Opera by Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord

A bit flawed, but ultimately very exciting

★★★
international review (edinburgh) | Read in About 3 minutes
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The Beggar's Opera
Published 17 Aug 2018

Notwithstanding the fact that The Beggar's Opera is a hodge podge of an opera, this is a bit of a hodge podge of an opera production. There's plenty here that just isn't quite right. Vocally, for starters, it's pretty ropey at times. Not all of the actors are singing specialists, and that shows – some run out of puff towards the end of long phrases; there are some bum notes. Perhaps as a result, actors are mic'd, which gives a West End sound that sits oddly alongside the period instruments. Furthermore, in an opera with a lot of canoodling, much of this is captured and amplified, all sloppy lips and hair muffling, to the extent that it sometimes obscures the music.

And then there's the accents, a mixure of cockney, estuary English and RP that works fine with the spoken text – Benjamin Purkiss as Macheath goes for a Russell Brand pastiche that is spot on. But it creeps unevenly into the singing. Only Beverley Klein (in a wonderful character turn as Mrs Peachum and Diana Trapes) and Olivia Brereton (as Lucy Lockit) really use the accent sparingly and thoughtfully to colour their songs. Others bring to mind Oliver! just a little too much.

And yet, in spite of its flaws, this is a remarkable piece. Under the pen of Ian Burton and Robert Carsen, John Gay's ballad opera has been brough up to date. It's the work that inspired The Threepenny Opera (famous for 'Mack the Knife') and this version tells the story of a society of modern crims and corrupt officials and politicians in a dog-eat-dog world. At times it's a bit tediously on-the-nose—Brexit, the Tories, Bullingdon Club toffs all get a knock—but overall, we get exactly what we're told we'll get: "Maximum guilt-inducing pathos". It's snappy, irreverent, there's some stunning bits of choreography that integrate body popping and breakdancing beautifully. Plus, someone has given period ensemble Les Arts Florissants a golden ticket. They appear here on stage, in civvies, integrated into the action and, in return, they deliver driving, pulsing versions of 300-year-old tunes that feel as modern as Peachum and Lockit snorting coke off a pram handle (yup, that happens). Special mention goes to the text message tone on harpsichord.

There's a moment at the end that ties a number of disparate strands together and elicits goosebumps. While much of this feels like pantomime, the implications of top-to-bottom corrution for those in power is brought into terrifying focus. Today's downtrodden might be tomorrow's big beasts – better watch out.