Catch The Beggar’s Opera at the EIF if You Can

16/08/2018

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Edinburgh International Festival 2018 [9] – John Gay, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s The Beggar’s Opera: Soloists, Les Arts Florissants / Florian Carré (conductor). King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 16.8.2018. (SRT)

Benjamin Purkiss (Macheath) & Beverley Klein (Mrs Peachum) (c) Patrick Berger

Cast:

Mr Peachum – Robert Burt
Mrs Peachum – Beverley Klein
Polly Peachum – Kate Batter
Macheath – Benjamin Purkiss
Lockit – Kraig Thornber
Lucy Lockit – Olivia Brereton

Production:

Robert Carsen (stage direction)
William Christie (musical conception)
James Brandily (set)
Petra Reinhardt (costumes)
Robert Carsen & Peter van Praet (lighting)

Satire dates. Newspaper cartoons very quickly become difficult to interpret, and most of us need a degree to figure out exactly what’s being targeted in the poetry of Pope and Dryden. So it’s remarkable that, nearly 300 years after it was written, the mockery of The Beggar’s Opera still retains its acidic bite and scurrilous wit.

The major success of this production from Paris’ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord is that it taps into the work’s latent energy. When it burst onto the scene in 1728, John Gay’s opera set London alight with its daring language, its racy wit and its innovative structure, and Robert Carsen’s production manages to bring that to light for our time. The set, a grimy warehouse full of endless packing boxes, acts as a metaphor for a setting where everyone is for sale, venality rules all, and no characters have genuine affection for one another. That doesn’t make it stale, however: instead the young ensemble cast explode onto the stage at the start of the evening, accompanied by sirens and alarms, and immediately begin a thumping choreography routine that sets the tone for a high energy evening. With no interval, the action unfolds with quickfire pace throughout its two-hour running time, bursting from one scene into another, propelled by characters who are at once loathsome and identifiable; noxious and sympathetic.

The cast are chosen more their acting than their singing ability, but the whole ensemble blended brilliantly and nobody failed to acquit themselves on both fronts. Benjamin Purkiss’s young, macho Macheath was every inch the ladies’ man, and his poppy voice gave him a whiff of the teen idol, too. As his ‘wives’ Kate Batter’s Poppy and Olivia Brereton’s Lucy were well contrasted, as was their witch of a mother, played with lascivious glee by Beverley Klein. All the smaller roles, including the criminals and whores, were well taken, with special mention to Sean Lopeman’s Filch. However, the show belonged to Robert Burt’s larger-than-life Peachum, who owned the stage every time he walked on and whose character seemed to expand to inhabit the space. Next to him Kraig Thornber’s Lockit held his own but was somewhat put in the corner.

Top credit, however, goes to the musicians of Les Arts Florissants, gamely dressed in caps, shades and grungy casuals, who brought the music to fizzing life, ably directed from the keyboard by Florian Carré, and who became every bit as much a part of the action as the actors on stage. The dialogue’s trendy use of expletives became a little wearing after a while, and some of the jokes – about, for example, Theresa May, Brexit and Thomas Markle – tried a bit too hard to be contemporary. Otherwise, though, this was an evening of drama where the sparks flew. Catch it if you can.

Simon Thompson

The Beggar’s Opera can be seen until Sunday 19th August. The 2018 Edinburgh International Festival runs in venues across the city until Monday 27th August. For full details click here.

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