Saturday, 13 April 2013

Beggars Opera


At this year’s Critics’ Award for Theatre Scotland, Vanishing Point swept the board with the intimate Interiors. For latest production, The Beggar’s Opera, they negotiate a co-production between Tramway – home of radical European performance – and the more sedate Lyceum. Bridging the gap between hip and sedate, Vanishing Point’s Matthew Lenton is one of the most important directors in Scotland.

From the moment the curtain rises on the two-levels of the set, with A Band Called Quinn ready to rock and a huge video screen in the rafters, The Beggar’s Opera boasts its cross-platform, multi-media, contemporary theatre practice credentials. But when the band kicks into the first tune, the contradictions are painfully evident. Muffled music, garbled lyrics and the sort of physical theatre that needs proper choreography: conservatism triumphs, reducing any radicalism to a suggestive, symbolic trace.

The tension between Vanishing Point’s desire to create an edgy, modern version of John Gay’s satire, and the politeness of the adaptation is never fully resolved. The humour – hardly helped by performances that veer from school-play melodrama to pantomime mugging – is lost and the moments of explicit social comment are blunt.

The visual impact of the criminals, hidden behind gas-masks and outré costumes, is lost whenever they slip into Gay’s text and the video footage is static. Predictable swipes at celebrity, brief soliloquies, sexy costumes - even the famous finale that breaks the suspension of disbelief - attempt to transcend the fourth wall but are all half-hearted: even a brothel scene is unerotic and trite, where the presence of a dominatrix is merely a signifier of taboo, lacking emotional impact. The presence of a healthy burlesque culture in the central belt exposes the three whores as tokens of subversion, rather than frightenly sexual and alluring.

The references to popular culture – including a weak version of The Doors’ The End and – oh God – The Streets - are limp and the antihero MacHeath misses either charisma or genuine edginess. The overall impression is of either a mainstream company appropriating alternative theatre, or an gang of outsiders selling out.

Yet it was, at the curtain call, fairly well-received: despite the jokes and the dramatic tension falling flat, it seemed to serve, for the Lyceum audience, as an interesting and titillating experiment. It is encouraging that the Lyceum is willing to engage with more challenging work, and that Vanishing Point are willing to move out of their comfortable small scale: Quinn don’t disgrace themselves, even if they are competing with Weill and Brecht’s re-imagining of the play, and Damir Todorovic evinces a sinister policeman.

The ideas driving this production are beautiful, but it needs better performances, tighter pacing and less compromises with accessibility: it fails to shock or threaten, and its challenges are predictable. Vanishing Point are still a vibrant force, and they will go on to create good work again, but this is a disappointing jumble of good expectations and poor taste.

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