Several centuries before anyone thought of stringing together a series of pop numbers with a flimsy excuse for a plot and turning it into a hit musical, John Gay wowed 18th-century London with pretty much the same idea.
The Beggar’s Opera was based on popular tunes cobbled together by a bawdy story populated with lowlife characters. The work satirised the conventions of contemporary Italian opera of which Handel was the master and lampooned famous figures of the age. It created a sensation and has been much imitated and reimagined by subsequent generations, most famously Brecht and Weill in The Threepenny Opera. Given that only the outlines of the tunes survive, it is a work that is ripe for reinvention by each successive age.
This latest production from Robert Carsen and the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord is something of a curious hybrid. An ultra-modern setting and dialogue are paired with historical performance authenticity in which an attempt is made at some kind of faithful reimagining of the lost musical score. The result is cheerfully anachronistic. On the one hand there is Carsen’s slick, irreverent production, all gun-toting acrobatics, lots of swearing and a cast largely drawn from the West End stage, while on the other hand the musicians of Les Arts Florissants bring their period-instrument pedigree to the performance.
Much has been made about the updated satire in this new production, but despite a few topical gags about the recent royal wedding and politics, it’s all a bit underwhelming. In the age of the Panama Papers, who really cares about a little low-level bribery and corruption? Carsen’s production is largely an exercise in style over substance, and at this level it is enjoyable enough, except for one substantial drawback: the music simply isn’t that interesting. You can’t help feeling that Carsen and his team missed a trick in not being as adventurous in reinventing the music as they were the rest of the production.
- At King’s theatre, Edinburgh, until 19 August.
- Read all our Edinburgh festival reviews.