It might be an heretical question, but is The Beggar’s Opera past its view-by date?
It’s a reflection arising from last night’s performance at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, which, perversely, is a fine production of the 1728 text – generally good acting (although Jasper Britton as Mr Peachum was having a bit of trouble spitting his words out last night), a spectacular tumbril-and-gallows-dominated set that works perfectly beneath the dark trees and looping bats, and energetic but controlled movement that swoops around the audience. Additionally there’s interesting, powerful music from The City Waites, using authentic instruments producing a sound that clearly belongs to another age.
But I’m with the Telegraph in describing the play as disconcerting, if not for exactly the same reasons. Certainly it is an odd mix of political satire, social comment and romp, and our reactions today, in an age of very different morality, put a distinctly different shade on some of the characters’ decisions.
Oddly, it isn’t the politics that’s the problem. Many reviewers have commented on the parallels between the early 18th century and today regarding official corruption, avarice in high places and general decay. A bit obvious, but quite comfortable.
But it’s the personal relationships that are the real issue. There’s an awful lot of negative commentary on the female sex, and a lack of sympathy in the treatment of women outside the two main love interests that are frequently wince-inducing.
But it’s the final scene and Captain Mackeith’s choice between the lovely, pretentious, and rather wet Polly Peachum (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and the rambunctious, assertive and “common” Lucy Lockitt (Beverley Rudd) that sits oddly.
Both actors do a fine job in different ways – Spencer-Longhurst has a sweet but powerful voice, and Rudd spectacular comic timing and a strong stage presence. But when the hunky captain (David Caves) opts for Polly – the character who over the centuries seems to have been at the centre of audiences’ love affair with the play it feels both unlikely and odd.
Perhaps, although returning the play to quite traditional clothing and music makes it an interesting period piece, it now needs more adaptation, more clearly contemporary references – indeed rewriting – to work today.
The production continues until July 23.