The Beggar's Opera, realized by Britten
Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio Theatre
29th January, 2009
Here is a story of greed: two women are in love with the highwayman Macheath, and their parents devise his death so they may collect the coins that fall from his pockets at the gallows. When the tension reaches its apex as Macheath stares into the noose, the players ask us, the audience, what we want. If Macheath dies, this is a tragedy of greed triumphant, love unrequited, and a sad self-centred jackass dead, not knowing any better. If he lives, he must undergo an instantaneous rebirth and realise that he loves one of the women, and must set things right with the other. Or just ask us, the audience, what we want and jump cut to a celebration dance. Surely the success of telling this story on stage depends upon how much the audience wants the jump cut to celebration. For, as the Beggar says to us in his last lines, "Had the Play remain'd, as I at first intended, it would have carried a most excellent Moral. ‘Twould have shown that the lower sort of People have their Vices in a degree as well as the Rich: and that they are punish'd for them." This is theatre of social unrest before Brecht, and later by Brecht. We should feel guilty for wanting the happy ending.
So on this Thursday night performance at the Linbury, did we want to jump cut to a celebration dance? Yes, for the most part, yes! Our director, Mr. Justin Way, wisely insisted on the players really asking the audience. Given an unsuccessful storytelling, the lovely old lady next to Edith might have felt uncomfortable being so rudely addressed. Bless my soul, she actually shouted, “Reprieve!” Success.
But why do we want the jackass to live? Why does the old lady yell? Definitely not for his sake. Macheath, pure ego, though a main role in the piece, is just another part of the darkness. The damage is done with Macheath, he won’t change, and we all know it. For us to care, for us to hope that Macheath lives, we have to love Polly and Lucy. And on this winter's eve, we did, mostly.
My guess is that the old lady shouted on behalf of Lucy, played by Ms. Sarah Fox. Ms. Fox simply gets it. Through her voice alone we were let into the mind and heart of Lucy. We knew that she was capable of the pure, selfless love evident in her warm, spinning, soprano loveliness, but also of the premeditated violence in her icy straight-tone and guttural cries.
Our Polly this evening, Leah Marian-Jones, is blessed with a velvety steel in her throat. However, where the opening scenes should have left us with a warmth for Polly, we felt an expository wash. Later, in the Act III duet with Lucy, the sound alone did us in and we cared for her, but we wanted to care earlier.
The darkness of Peachum (Jeremy White), Mrs. Peachum (Susan Bickley), Lockit (Donald Maxwell), and Macheath (Tom Randle) helped define Polly and Lucy as our strange source of light. As for Macheath the crime leader, there was no sense of danger, particularly in the dialogue; he sang like a ballsy gangster but spoke like Wilde's Algernon. One had a sense Mr. Randle was warming up in the first act; by the opening of Act II however, he revealed a scary, beautiful sound from the depths of darkness where we believe Macheath exists.
If Britten could have gotten his paws on the dialogue sections, if the Beggar did not specifically state: "I have not made my Opera throughout unnatural, like those in vogue; for I have no Recitative," surely the sheer force of his music would make these characters, and therefore this story, coherent. Only in the overture, wonderfully played by members of the City of London Sinfonia under the baton of Christian Curnyn, are we allowed enough time to be wholly transported into Britten’s world of wild musical swings – fugue to oompapa to sea shanty. After this, the jurisdiction of Britten and Maestro Curnyn presides only over the quick inserted numbers. All obvious dialogue criticism aside, Edith couldn't help but think that if the spinning top spun a bit faster in all spoken sections, it would not falter. The wit of every character’s constant satirical anecdotes might become funny, and most importantly, this acceleration would allow time for the important storytelling.
It is Edith's understanding that in the English Opera Group's original staging, the players tagged in and out of the action; they performed, and then sat as stage-audience. Our designers, Kim Kovac and Andrew Hays, take this idea into a modern run-down Soho theatre. For much of the action, our performers watched from among faux-audience cardboard cut-outs (who are those faces?), though one wished they would actually watch and not pretend to watch. The design was a success. Amid the seedy sensibility of Soho, we the audience knew we were being told a story and yet we felt involved. It made us ask ourselves some of the essential questions of the piece: if, despite the set's constant visual reminders that all is pretend, we still want a happy ending that doesn't make sense, then who are we? Who is Edith? Am I the type of person who does not want to see things as they are, even in a pretend world?
My neighbour shouted and success was achieved, but we suspect that this production could have achieved uproar from more than just my neighbour if its elements could have joined efforts. It is clear that the piece itself does not inherently work; it requires a craft of embroidery to bring its strands together. This brilliant set begged for more creative staging. The range of expression in the musical numbers was at odds with that of the dialogue. Had the elements worked together, had we been refused our happy ending, my neighbour and I would have thrown tomatoes.