John Gay’s cunningly titled The Beggar's Opera was designed to ridicule corrupt authority, cocking a snook at the stuffy world of Italianate opera by using popular tunes of the day, an 18th-century ‘jukebox musical’.  It certainly chimed with the London theatre audience in 1728 and this new pithy, up-to-the-minute topical version by Ian Burton and Robert Carsen from the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord delivered the unexpected to the opera crowd at the Edinburgh International Festival.

<i>The Beggar's Opera</i> © Patrick Berger
The Beggar's Opera
© Patrick Berger

Gay’s satire reflected the time, but the language of his libretto lampooning Sir Robert Walpole’s government now appears dated. This new revival did away with the Beggar as narrator and updated the dialogue bringing modern day parallels with authority figures and the colourful criminal underworld into expletively-strewn sharp focus. The decision to use actor-singers alongside top Baroque players emphasised the contradictions of high-art culture, low-brow street criminals and the popular tunes that define this work.

The homeless Beggar was onstage before a wall of cardboard boxes as we took our seats, hightailing it smartly as police sirens sounded, the players of Les Arts Florissants making what must rank as one of the best orchestral entrances ever, frantically unboxing their precious instruments and tablets in a whirlwind, like an Amazon delivery on speed.    Dressed in grunge, all shades and turned-about baseball caps, they gathered in front of the side of the stage as Florian Carré, directing from his unboxed harpsichord, gave the thumbs up. The contrast to the shocking mayhem as the ancient lyrical music began, prepared by William Christie with sweet lute and period instrument colour stopped us in our tracks.

Les Arts Florissants © Patrick Berger
Les Arts Florissants
© Patrick Berger

Set as a criminal comedy fuelled by stolen goods, bribes, sex and cocaine, the simple story has gangmaster Mr Peachum finding out that his daughter Polly has secretly married the gangster Macheath. He conspires with his wife to have Macheath hanged, pocketing his ill-gotten money. Lucy Lockit, the pregnant daughter of a corrupt prison warden, is out for revenge. In this updated version, modern-day society was reflected with Brexit gags and jokes about “strong and stable government” and even the SNP going down a storm.

It is more difficult to be sympathetic to the piece’s treatment of women, the underlying misogyny remaining obstinately knitted into the work. Carsen’s answer was to deliberately make us feel awkward by portraying women as popular stereotypes, caricature prostitute groupees, including Jenny Diver in a catsuit and whip, who paw and tease Macheath in turn as he proclaims to all who will listen that he adores sex. Polly Peachum and the pregnant Lucy Lockit are lovable, but dumb and vacuous, with Mrs Peachum a gin-tippling doughty matriarch, doubling as Diana Trapes, the larger than life Irish pub landlady, in a red wig and green boots. The men updated better into criminal gang members, all mobile phones, guns and ready-for-action energy.

The small orchestra from Les Arts Florissants was sensational and spirited, seemingly improvising on the tunes with some lovely solos from the recorder and oboe. Marie-Ange Petit sat on the edge of the stage setting out her array of tiny Baroque percussion like opening a toy box of delights. She was a joy to watch as she selected items, some for the briefest of moments adding rhythmic piquancy and driving the songs with verve.

<i>The Beggar's Opera</i> © Patrick Berger
The Beggar's Opera
© Patrick Berger

With actor-singers, voices were sensitively miked with a reasonable balance being achieved. Most vocals were secure, any patchiness more than made up for in energetic ensemble, the whole cast put through their paces with some hearty singing – a lusty Fill Every Glass - and with lively and acrobatic choreography from Rebecca Howell. Robert Burt carried authority as a suited fixer Peachum, sharing lines of cocaine with Kraig Thornber’s oily policeman Lockit as both get their just desserts. Benjamin Purkiss was superb as a sweet voiced bad boy Macheath, juggling his women, gangster deals and the rope – for capital punishment is back in this murky world. In the condemned cell, his defiant Tyburn Tree song set to Greensleeves was a moving high point. There was mischievous supporting detail from Wayne Fitzsimmons as Robin the politician with criminal connections and Sean Lopeman was a delightfully hapless Filch.

Kate Batter as Polly Peachum, Olivia Brereton as Lucy Lockit and Beverley Klein as Mrs Peachum were a formidable trio, amusingly devious but playful, insisting on a selfie with Macheath and the noose. The women of the night, clad in bright luridly colourful attire by Petra Reinhardt added energetic presence.

A surprise change of government reprieves Macheath and the cast raid James Brandily’s cardboard box set for a last minute change into suits to take on their new responsibilities.  Shady people running the country? A delightful twist at the end of a witty satirically topical evening.

****1