Next month, for just over a week, Londoners will have the rare opportunity to see three productions of three versions of the same story, when The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera and The Buskers Opera all coincide.
I happened to be pondering this over a pint a few nights ago, and thought it was something worth looking into.
The story began with The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in the 18th century. It was essentially the inspiration for the musical theatre format we know today, as it was designed as an “anti-opera” – taking out the grandiose pomp & style of opera and making it relevant to ordinary people. Its subject matter was topical, satirising the politics of the time, as well as highlighting the poverty, corruption & injustice people were increasingly facing. It centres around famed highwayman Macheath and his entanglements with the Peachums, as well as a wide variety of other characters. RADA students are set to put on a production to close their summer season this year.
Two centuries later, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill took the story and adapted it to make The Threepenny Opera. This version is set in Victorian London, with Macheath still as the central character who also goes by the name Mack the Knife. In keeping with the music of the time, its score is very much influenced by jazz. (I’m sure you’ve all heard one version of ‘Mack the Knife’ at one point or another, as it has become a jazz standard.) The content was hugely relevant at the time of its inception, with its focus on capitalism from a socialist perspective. The National Theatre has a forthcoming production, starring Rory Kinnear & Rosalie Craig.
And now, almost a century later, we are about to see The Buskers Opera. As with The Threepenny Opera, its story harks back to The Beggar’s Opera, but with a new book and score of its own by Dougal Irvine. In this version of events, Macheath is a busker who leads his own gang called ‘The Ninety Nine Percenters’ – a group of dissenters set on bringing down the people in power. Its context is the London 2012 Olympics and the oft-mentioned “legacy” it was supposed to leave behind.
Starring George Maguire & Lauren Samuels as Macheath & Polly Peachum, the show has already generated a huge amount of interest – and has even been tipped to transfer before a single public performance! Not only is it topical (notably performing around the time of the London mayoral election), but it has been living up to its socialist credentials in the run-up to its opening. A crowdfunding project raised £6,500 to help make the show more accessible – to people facing financial difficulties (via the ‘Art Matters: Pass It On’ ticket scheme) and to those who can find theatre trips uncomfortable (by putting on the first ever relaxed performance at the Park).
This show is the culmination of five years of development, and its introduction to the world could not be more timely.
The three productions overlapping is, of course, a coincidence – and a bittersweet one at that. We are in a time of austerity, homelessness in London has increased since the feel-good summer of 2012, and it often seems impossible to see a way out of it. So, in time-honoured fashion, we turn to the arts for distraction & hope…
The Buskers Opera runs from 28 April-4 June 2016 at the Park Theatre, The Threepenny Opera runs from 18 May-1 September 2016 at the National Theatre, The Beggar’s Opera runs from 26 May-4 June at RADA.