January 18, 2003: Havel, The Beggar’s Opera

Evening. Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Adapted from the original work by John Gay.

The Orange Tree prides itself for being the premier venue in England for the plays of Havel, in an association going back (according to the program) to 1977 and their productions of Audience and Private View, and The Memorandum. This production of The Beggar’s Opera has been intended to mark the end of Havel’s ten years as president of the Czech Republic.

It is a sparkling, wonderful production of a play whose brilliance becomes increasingly clear as the play proceeds. In adapting Gay’s ballad opera, Havel strips the work of its musical dimension — an important element of Gay’s satirical purpose in the original 1728 realization. What is left is its reinvention as a straight play with the same characters, the same fictional setting (the eighteenth-century London underworld), and essen­tially the same action as the original. Havel does no apparent modernizing, keeping the historical period and costumes and pursuing an action based on the central idea of Gay’s work, namely, that when we consider how they behave, it is impossible to distinguish the “gentlemen of the road” from “the fine gentlemen,” and the result is a society false and corrupt to its core. What Havel also preserves is the unmistakable glint in the eye of the author. It is easy to see how Czechoslovak audiences of 1975, three years after Havel wrote the play and seven years after the Soviet Union invaded his country and brought Dubcek’s Prague Spring to an untimely end, someone seeing a single performance of a version of Brecht’s version of Gay’s Opera would have perceived immediately the transient analogies between Gay’s (and Brecht’s) work and the corrupt communist govern­ment now in power over the Czechs.

Transfer this to London in 2003 and the analogies are not so immed­iately compelling, but they are there nonetheless. Instead of identifying something specific in Tony Blair’s government, the play now seems to cast its roving eye in the general direction of human cupidity and lust for power.

Whatever specific targets might be identified, this production lives up to the standard one expects from the Orange Tree company, vitally alive in this miniature theatre and performing cheek by jowl with a full audience appreciative of well-realized characters speaking every word clearly at a clip so fast that sustained focus is required not to miss some barbed line or some sardonic reply. Howard Saddler, a black actor of tall physical stature, and of deceptively bland presence until he opens his mouth, does the honey-toned, survival-minded Macheath to a “T”; David Timson plays the stolid, stone-faced Peachum just as well; and Bruce Alexander is fully convincing as the suave, business-like, relaxed but fast-talking Bill Lockit, chief of police. This is the triumvirate of characters that jostle one another for power in Havel’s London. But there are more excellent actors, female and male, as well, notably Vivien Heilbron, owner of a “Ladies Salon” (viz., a high-class brothel) and Caitlin Mottram, whose sultry, dark-browed Jenny is sensuous and treacherous and a match for any man.

Once again, just deliciously good theatre. I don’t see how they can afford to do theatre of this quality for such a small house. My ticket, for an unreserved seat in the upper circle (see the entry for last January 7 for a description of the physical theatre at the Orange Tree) cost me £15.50, compared to prices in the West End upwards of three times that amount. For this, you get theatre as vibrant and as expertly well performed as anywhere in London — or anywhere else in the world, as far as I know. How is it possible?



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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