Interview: 300-year-old The Beggar's Opera as relevant as ever

Almost three centuries on from its creation, The Beggar's Opera is still as relevant, meaningful and adaptable as ever, writes Susan Mansfield
This reinvented production of The Beggars Opera is set in a warehouse full of stolen goods. Picture: Patrick BergerThis reinvented production of The Beggars Opera is set in a warehouse full of stolen goods. Picture: Patrick Berger
This reinvented production of The Beggars Opera is set in a warehouse full of stolen goods. Picture: Patrick Berger

Few works of theatre from the 18th century are performed today, but The Beggar’s Opera is an important exception. John Gay’s satirical masterpiece has been reinvented many times in the 290 years since it was first performed, finding fresh life in many political contexts: Brecht and Weill reworked it as The Threepenny Opera in Weimar Germany; Václav Havel created an anti-Soviet version in Czechoslovakia in 1976; and the following year, Wole Soyinka remade it in Nigeria.

Robert Carsen, who directs the version that will be performed at Edinburgh International Festival as part of a season of work from Paris’ Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, believes it’s also a play for our time. His production sets the show in contemporary London, while aiming to capture the subversive energy of Gay’s original. He says: “People who are very familiar with the piece will know and recognise their good friend, but see him in new clothes.”

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His cast of beggars and pickpockets are the drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes of London today; the setting is a warehouse full of stolen goods. Gay’s text has been updated to include references to contemporary politics and will be brought to life not by opera singers but by a young cast of singers and dancers from West End musicals, in keeping with the fact that, in place of arias and recitative, Gay used the popular songs of the day – albeit with new words.

“It could be called the first musical comedy,” Carsen says. “It’s a fast-moving satirical comedy to which Gay added these folk songs – Irish, Scottish and English – songs everyone would have known. It’s the first jukebox musical. When we started to work on it, Bill [music director William Christie] and I had the same feeling, that we should cast this as it was first written, with actors who were singers, rather than opera singers. They’re having a lot of fun with it, and they have the energy to put across the angry and slightly tough message that is in the show. It was a very anarchic piece for its time, a scathing critique of society.”

Gay’s play, with its cast of exuberant lowlifes, was sharply satirical, both of Italian opera that had been in vogue, and of the political regime of the time. Gay was part of the same literary circle as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, whose scabrous wit attacked the politicians of the day, particularly Robert Walpole, now regarded as Britain’s first de facto prime minister.

At the same time, society was gripped by salacious tales from the criminal underclasses. Thief taker Jonathan Wild, gentleman highwayman Claude Duval, and Jack Sheppard – famous for his prison escapes – were minor celebrities; there are overtones of all three in the characters in The Beggar’s Opera. While Carsen’s production stops short of drawing direct parallels with contemporary figures, either in politics or crime, it’s not hard to make one’s own associations.

However, there is nothing so quaint here as honour among thieves. In Gay’s play everyone is out for themselves. The gangmaster, Peachum, rakes in money from his criminal associates while shopping them (for more money) to a corrupt jailer. When he discovers, to his horror, that his daughter Polly has married dashing highwayman Macheath, he immediately plots to have him captured and hanged so he can pocket his cash.

“Morality is turned on its head,” says Carsen. “One song is about how every single man rips off every other man, all you want is to get the most money you can for yourself. It’s very much a piece for our time. It makes us laugh, but the laughter not entirely comfortable. The satire was hilarious to people at the time, but, however piquant and potent those references, they don’t mean much to us today. It’s important to translate that, while keeping the essence of the piece.”

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Dramaturg Ian Burton adds: “The politics of the original are extraordinary, it constantly undermines the audience. You can’t say, ‘Ah, I get it,’ find a key that unlocks the whole thing. It’s a very brilliant piece and we have had to keep our wits about us trying to find contemporary equivalents.” The Beggar’s Opera was first performed in Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728 and was an overnight success, running for a near-unprecedented 62 nights.

Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly Peachum, became a celebrity (a notoriety not hindered by the fact that she then eloped with her lover, the Duke of Bolton) and the play even spawned a range of merchandise, including fans and playing cards. The producer, Jonathan Rich, built a new theatre in Covent Garden from the proceeds and a wit quipped in one of the newspapers of day that the show “has made Rich very gay and probably will make Gay very rich”. Walpole hated it, and made sure Gay’s sequel – called Polly – was blocked by the Lord Chamberlain.

Although it has been reworked many times, the original is still much loved, and Ian Burton found himself feeling not a little trepidation about updating it.

“I was very nervous to start with, it’s such a established masterpiece, it’s like being asked to update Twelfth Night, the language is the play. However, as soon as I started, it seemed very natural and obvious that this was what we were going to do. It became an exciting adventure.” He describes The Beggar’s Opera as a “brilliant piece of political cartooning” and has a “very contemporary feel about it”.

While many of the 20th-century versions have updated the music – Duke Ellington worked on a version in New York in the 1940s, and the RSC famously produced a rock music version in 1983 – the Bouffes du Nord team decided to make the music as authentically 18th-century as possible. Baroque expert William Christie and the musicians of Les Arts Florissants have worked with the original scores to recreate, as far as possible, the music of Gay’s era.

Ian Burton says: “We wanted to keep it close to the original because we admired it so much. It’s a marvellous thing that Bill Christie has done, taking each song at face value and arranging it as close as you can imagine to 18th-century musical practice. The idea that the music is what Gay would have heard and the text is what a contemporary audience in 2018 would hear in a sitcom or a TV drama – that mix is delicious.

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“Beggar’s Opera was totally radical. There had been nothing like it in English theatre and it altered the direction of English musical theatre ever after. You can trace its influence right through to Dickens, Gilbert & Sullivan and a lot more, until you get to Jerry Springer - The Opera.”

• The Beggar’s Opera is at the King’s Theatre, 16-19 August