STRONG SENSE OF ENSEMBLE COMMITMENT CARRIES THE EVENING
ANOTHER BEGGAR’S OPERA
by LONG CLOUD YOUTH THEATRE,
adapted from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera
directed by Stella Reid
presented by WHITIREIA NEW ZEALAND
A Masters in Theatre Arts (Directing) Production (Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School / VUW)
LONG CLOUD YOUTH THEATRE
at Aro St Church, 225 Aro St, Wellington
From 17 Aug 2012 to 22 Aug 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 18 Aug 2012
John Gay's satirical ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera, penned in part to send up London's love affair with Italian opera, premiered in 1728 and has been produced ever since in various permutations. The best known of the many adaptations – Wikipedia lists 16 up to 2011 – is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera (1928).
So this version by Stella Reid with Long Cloud Youth Theatre, dubbed Another Beggar's Opera, follows a centuries-old tradition. Presented in Aro Valley's deconsecrated church, it is set in the Wellington CBD. Not that there is any attempt to create that as the make-believe starting point. Initially the end-on acting space is inhabited by the youth theatre cast in fairly tatty clothes just being themselves as the audience takes their seats.
A cast member asks the audience for a joke (which will later be used in the show) then they launch into their opening number: “This operetta nursery rhyme you won't find in a book / It's written on your silly face, just stop and take a look.”
The beggar's shopping trolley overflows with the jetsam of civilisation: car tyres, hubcaps and air conditioner ducting. When his offer to share his chips with a fellow street person draws others in from the shadows, he pisses them off by offering to share his story instead.
So a youthful group of performers play Wellington street people who in turn play out the story being told by one of their number. And there is no attempt to cast us in the role of other street people gathered, for example, in an urban park or mall. We are who we are, witnessing the presentation from our position of privilege.
We are not spoon-fed the story, so it helps to be familiar with it. Reid and her team are more concerned with the ‘how' of performance than ‘what' and ‘why' of story-telling. They pick elements of it to play with, over the hour, rather than address the more complex intrigues of the original narrative. So we get to observe and appreciate performance more than wrestle with the real moral issues of survival in a corrupt society and system.
We are teased with whether or not they will deliver the iconic Weill song, ‘Mack the Knife' – and they do, with flair. It emerges that Jonah Jeremiah Peachum, “the definition of evil”, owns the streets and buildings and leases the footpaths to buskers. Thus he represents both the private and public sectors.
Macheath has cult hero status in the underclass despite being a polygamous user and abuser of women. The price Mrs Peachum puts on his head, because her daughter Polly thinks she is engaged to him, is too tempting for the likes of Jenny Diver … And so it plays out right up to the noose, which is the only time the man himself appears. But our apparent desire for a happy ending sees his demise averted.
En route some good quips hit home, the show comments on itself and other versions of it, and some witty staging – e.g. the walk through the streets – adds to the entertainment value. Despite asserting in her programme note “it's a play about cacophony”, Reid is not afraid of silence, uses the long pause to good theatrical effect a number of times.
Weill's ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?' (popularised by Tom Waits) is given a strong rendition but it's ‘Mack The Knife' (popularised by Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra) which ends the show, presumably to indulge our love of a well-known tune that romanticises a renegade while diverting us from meaningful social commentary – which, as with the happy ending imperative, may be intended as a comment in itself.
There is little effort put into characterisation, as such. At times poor diction and projection subtract from the production's potential. But a strong sense of ensemble commitment carries the evening for its highly supportive opening night audience.
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