The Beggar’s Opera **1/2

When walking out of the world premiere of Pulp Fiction at Cannes, famed American film critic Roger Ebert was approached by Quentin Tarantino and asked what he thought.  Ebert’s reply was ‘It is either the best film of the year or one of the worst.’

Upon walking out of the Lyceum after watching The Beggar’s Opera, I had the exact same notion.

More of a reimagination than a remount or a reproduction, Vanishing Point’s The Beggar’s Opera has many ideas and ambitions, few of which are fully met.  It is an impressive display of theatrics and is filled with imaginative direction and design.  What it is missing, however, is a soul.

Originally written by John Gay in the 18th century, Opera is a social satire set amongst the low-ends of society.  Rather than containing dashing, classy heroes, the play is populated by thieves, murderers and prostitutes.  Lead character MacHeath is a criminal mastermind who has a way with women, most of whom know better but can’t deny his charms.  His marriage to one such woman, Polly, leads to a complicated plot of double and triple crosses, all in the name of financial gain and lust-disguised-as-love.

For this new production, a science-fiction element has been added.  The cast wear gas masks and costumes that mix styles seen in A Clockwork Orange and the Mad Max films, and much of the look comes across as a Magritte painting set in the Star Wars universe.  It’s all impressive to look at and actually succeeds in making the source material much more relevant than any ‘classical’ production could achieve.

And there are also some really strong performances.  James Bryce and Pauline Goldsmith make a very good Peachum couple, and Sandy Grierson is a rather excellent MacHeath.  However, I found the performance given by A Band Called Quinn, who remain on stage the entire time and occasionally act with the company, to be the most compelling of the evening.  Their musical flourishes manage to add much needed weight to many of the scenes, as well as the production as a whole.

But with such strong elements, the production still feels severely lacking in other qualities.  Though it is great to look at, there isn’t much humanity to be found.  There are also some very raunchy moments which will probably put the easily offended off.  While these moments are fun to watch, they seem to exist more for shock and humour and come across as naughty but pointless.  And much of the pacing is off; some scenes go on for ages while others feel out of breath due to the amount of plot-driven ground covered, resulting in a dramaturgical mess.

I applaud the bravery of this production, and I would rather theatre companies fail at over-ambitious ideas than play safe.  And there is absolutely nothing ‘safe’ about this.  I even love the idea of this playing at the Lyceum, a theatre that has in fact been accused by many of ‘playing it safe’ recently.

But in the end, The Beggar’s Opera feels like a great dish gone wrong: the recipe is right and the ingredients are all of high quality, but the final meal is a disaster.  However, there are enough tasty morsels to make one appreciate what might have been.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

At the Lyceum until October 3, then at the Tramway from October 28-31.

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