Tuesday 5 July 2011

Review: The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (the script)

The Beggar's Opera was one of my first encounters with eighteenth century literature when I read it as part of my A-Level drama course back in those halcyon days of being able to drink gallons of cheap vodka and wake up the next day, fresh as a daisy.

Since then I have wanted to see it, and I have managed to secure a ticket (only one alas - damn fraud squad canceled my card before I could pay for the second, -grumble grumble-) to see it performed at the Regent Open Air Theatre with Phil Daniels from Quadraphenia and The City Waites, who do a great line in 17/18th century street musics.

So.... as preparation to reviewing the performance, here is what I think of the script.

 The Beggar’s Opera was the theatrical sensation of its time and was the most performed play of the C18th and with good reason, it’s great fun.
Mr Peachum is a pillar of two communities; in the first he is a keeper of law, capturing criminals at fifty quid a pop. In the second, the leader of the largest criminal gang in London, keeping them in line by threatening to capture them at fifty quid a pop. 

The trouble is, his daughter Polly married one his gang, the Highwayman Macheath, which gives Macheath power over Peachum. Macheath has been sleeping around, as well as marrying around and one of his other wives is Lucy, daughter of Lockit the head turnkey of Newgate Jail. The rest of the plot consists of Lockit and Peachum’s attempts to imprison and execute Macheath and the two daughter's attempts to free Macheath and keep him away from the other wife. This all leads to Macheath’s execution which is postponed as a sacrifice to the absurdity of opera. Not that the plot matters much, more enjoyable are the lines, the characters and the set pieces. 

So, the script, what do we get? Only some of the finest set pieces in all theatre. The beginning, where Peachum is trying to work out which gang members should live or die with callousness and cold hearted business sense, as if he was merely talking about food going out of date. There is the scene in the pub where the gang drink themselves into brave spirits before leaving to haunt the heath and rob weary travellers, justifying their actions to themselves as they do, this is followed by Macheath (who was swearing undying love and loyalty a few minutes before) entertaining himself with dozens of catty prostitutes  - and hundreds more scenes filled with humour, darkness and songs.
My absolute favourite scene has Macheath chained to the floor of the prison, unable to move. Unfortunately for him both Lucy Lockit and Polly Peachum come into the room and lay claim to him. They start to fight each other, leaving Macheath unable to do anything but watch. 

I love the dash of Macheath, how he is incapable of fidelity but his affection is equally strong with all his loves. Boswell, stepping into a brothel, imagined himself to be Macheath, who played a very similar role in the C18th imagination as James Bond does in ours. He is charming, smooth, brave and successful with the ladies - he is also dangerous and a bit of a selfish tosser - the key ingredients for any popular exploration of manhood.
 The other characters are also good. Mr Peachum and Mr Lockitt spend most of the play helping each other to achieve mutual ends but are at the same time are looking out for any opportunity to 'bubble' the other and come out one better. The gang's attempts to justify their lives as thieves remind me of Defoe's 'innocent blackguards' and the prostitutes are fleshed out in their scene, with all of their bitchy rivalries hidden under the appearance of gentility. Polly is a pretty standard sappy heroine but Lucy Lockitt has enough spunk to make up for her, nearly poisoning Polly with rat poison in one scene.

A Benefit ticket, showing the same scene as the Hogarths.
Most of all, I love the way the characters have their own personal desires that they will twist and turn and wriggle for, like fish on hooks. 

There is also one large benefit to reading the play instead of watching  it. It is possible to I re-stage it differently in my head each time, making it a constantly changing and lively experience.
My favourite quote... ‘Money is made for the free-hearted and generous.’ Too right - and I’d prove it to if I ever had some.

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