Monday, September 28, 2009

"The Beggar's Opera" - September 2009

Mark Thomson, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Lyceum in Edinburgh has quite clearly lost his mind. If he had actively tried to alienate the majority of his theatre's regular attendees I doubt he could have come up with a better way of doing it than this co-production with Vanishing Point and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry which re-imagines John Gay's original. But perhaps, just perhaps, Mark Thomson is a genius.

You see, we reckon that as theatregoers in our mid thirties we are approaching the top end of the age range of those who will enjoy this show. Of course that's a sweeping generalisation, but we're pretty sure that for every 5 years over the age of 40 you are, the chances of this being your kind of show diminish significantly. And the Lyceum audience isn't exactly known for it's youthfulness. The problem isn't the expletives or the sex, it's the music that forms such an integral part of the show. It's loud, grungy, poppy and you frequently can't make out the lyrics. Exactly the kind of stuff the 'grown ups' will hate.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that a younger audience will love it - provided of course that Thomson can get them through the doors in the first place. So the question then becomes - is this show strong enough to pull in a whole new generation to the theatre and keep them coming back? I'm not sure - but if any show can, it might just be this one.

The show opens with a barrage of sound and visuals quite unlike anything I've seen onstage before - it's rather like watching the opening title sequence of a superhero movie based on a comic book. It's fast and slick as it introduces MacHeath and sets the tone for the rest of the show. The integration between the live on stage action, the video elements and the on stage presence of "A Band Called Quinn" combine pretty much seamlessly. Although there were times in the first half of the show where the levels were off to the extent that the lyrics were almost impossible to catch in some of the numbers 'shared' between cast and band.

Some of the characters are pretty two dimensional, particularly Lockit and Mr & Mrs Peachum, but as I've said, we're firmly in comic book territory here so we don't need complex characterisations. Victoria Bavister and Elspeth Brodie as Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit are suitably convincing as a pair who have fallen for MacHeath's good looks, glamourous lifestyle and patter. But the show is all about MacHeath and Sandy Grierson has produced the most charismatic and captivating performance I've seen on stage since Alan Cumming in "The Bacchae". It certainly left the female contingent of our party drooling.

Eve Lambert's costumes are phenomenal - from MacHeath's gas-masked crew to the faceless inhabitants of the world above. And Kai Fischer's set works brilliantly to bring the elements of the show together and we never question the fact that the same set is used for several distinct locations. And of course we have Alasdair Macrae and A Band Called Quinn's perfectly pitched soundtrack to the show made up of specially written tracks along with short riffs of recogniseable songs. (you can hear a few tracks on the band's Myspace page)

I'm a little bemused by the frequency the charge of 'style over substance' has been thrown at the show. We don't generally go into any depth on the themes and issues that shows provoke - we'd rather leave it for people to decide for themselves what a show has meant to them. But in this case I think it's appropriate to go down that road - at least a little. For me, the whole show was about style over substance. MacHeath isn't a Robin Hood character robbing the rich and giving to the poor, there's no doubt he's an out and out criminal. As I believe the lyrics put it - 'He's a Dog'. He treats Polly and Lucy dreadfully, and yet they are seduced by his looks, his charisma, the glamour and fame that goes with him to the extent they'll give up everything for him. And in the end even our narrator Sandra Sanderson (and by extension the audience) is enthralled by him to the extent that she/we won't see him hang. We choose to associate ourselves with the glamour, image and style of this rogue rather than see justice be done. To me, it's as scorching a critique of our celebrity and image obsessed society as I've seen.

This show is certainly not for everyone, and the Lyceum is a surprising home for it. But do have a look at the trailer for the show on the Lyceum website as it gives a fair idea of what you can expect. I'm not sure that the trade-off of risking upsetting an existing audience in the hope of gaining a new one will pay off entirely, but it's definitely changed the way we think about the Lyceum. Oh yes, we also liked the marketing department's ingenious use of the wide range of reviews the show has received:

The Beggar's Opera runs at the Lyceum until 3rd October, and then goes to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and Tramway in Glasgow.
Production image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

18 Heckles

Matthew Lenton said...

I’ve never responded to a review of my own work before, but I wanted to write something having read your fascinating response to The Beggar’s Opera. Mark Thomson may or may not be a genius, but I believe he deserves great praise for the risk he took in commissioning this show. In a country in which conservatism is applauded and even celebrated, in which artistic vision is generally lacking, Mark made a bold choice, which I believe acknowledges the need for things to change.

The Beggar’s Opera divides people. At the end of the show each night, some people stand and cheer whilst others refuse to clap, or walk out. Many critics, judging it by a set of rules it simply doesn’t adhere to, have problems with it. Interestingly, the ‘best’ review came not from a theatre critic, but from a music critic. Theatre critics expect ‘narrative,’ ‘character development,’ and some ‘well formed’ intellectual thesis. Why? Maybe they spend too much time in theatres. For a long time people having been talking about theatre as a dying art form and it certainly has a lot to compete with and more and more people are going to live music (which also has a lot to compete with, but continues to thrive). I don’t think theatre is dying, I just think it’s changing. And I think theatre can learn a lot from live music, from the sheer force, fierceness and energy of a live gig. It’s also fascinating that (generally speaking) modern audiences attach equal importance to visual information and the spoken word. For other generations, visual elements are secondary to the spoken word – ‘if some one doesn’t say it, then it’s not that important.’ Many critics still expect the spoken word to sound beautiful, to convey, it itself, the weight of an argument. But the spoken language that I listen to everyday is rarely beautiful. It is ugly, vulgar, direct. And visual language means more and more. Unless people are prepared to read meaning into visual text, they will miss out or get left behind. Who wants to get left behind?

In the end it takes people like Mark Thomson to allow work like The Beggar’s Opera a place in our leading theatres. With the Citizens Theatre Company churning out eye-wateringly boring productions and many other theatres playing it safe, someone has to take the lead. NTS, thankfully, has risk-takers in charge and a strong imagination at work, but the buildings too need to evolve. That means making brave decisions themselves and facing the inevitable criticism. I think it’s brilliant that Mark is prepared to do this and I hope it proves him to be a genius!

Statler said...

Hi Matthew
Thanks for taking the time to respond to our piece on your show. Often theatre critics and even practitioners describe a work as 'challenging' when they really want to say that it was 'dreadful' but I think with "The Beggar's Opera" you've produced something that is challenging theatre in the genuine sense of the word. Perhaps, not quite so challenging had it been staged in other venues but there's no getting away from the fact that it is a huge departure from the usual output at the Lyceum. Of course usually this wouldn't be such a problem - people buying tickets know what they are going to be seeing and have chosen to come along, but with the Lyceum having a significant number of "Season Ticket" subscribers a good proportion of the audience haven't really chosen specifically to see your show. I also think it's worth making a distinction between trying to bring in a new audience and trying to take an existing audience with you. I suspect "The Beggar's Opera" is a brilliant vehicle for bringing in a younger generation but evidence appears to suggest it has proved a step too far for many more traditionally inclined theatregoers. I wonder whether it may have been a better option for the Lyceum to offer subscribers who had concerns before attending the show the option to swap tickets for the Christmas show instead or encourage them to pass the tickets on to younger family members who may appreciate it more. Earlier this year when the Tron attempted to introduce its audience to some theatre that was a little more 'out there' than their usual shows in the form of "Bliss + Mud" they offered complementary tickets to those who had attended a number of the Tron shows in the previous year and tied it in with the launch of their Patrons scheme. Like you we genuinely admire Mark Thomson's decision to commission your show but that doesn't mean it was necessarily the most fiscally appropriate decision for the Lyceum.

We do think you've hit on something with regards to the energy that live music adds to a piece - two of our favourite shows from the last 12 months drew much of their impact from on stage musical performances - "Dolls" and "Midsummer".

As for the critics, well we don't know enough about their demographics to comment on why they may have problems with the show, but the role of critic does seem to attract those who like to consider things rather prescriptively and aren't always open to change. We don't really consider ourselves as 'critics' as the main reason we see a show is to enjoy it, not write about it. And we most definitely enjoyed your show.

But we can't let you dismiss the Citz like that - they may play it safe in the main house but their Circle Studio has a wide range of theatre in it. And most importantly it does a brilliant job of making theatre widely accessible at affordable prices.

Best wishes for the rest of the run at the Lyceum and in Coventry. We're actually hoping to make a second visit when you reach Tramway - where I suspect with an entirely self selecting audience and with building word of mouth you may well be receiving widespread standing ovations. But please do try to get the levels right so we can hear all the lyrics!

Matthew Lenton said...

Speaking for myself only (and in no way representing the views of The Lyceum), I think you’re underestimating Lyceum audiences. Furthermore, perhaps our generalizations about ‘younger’ and ‘older’ audiences are misleading. Last week I was told off by an older member of the audience who had enjoyed the show for suggesting it might be more suited to a younger generation. In any case, I don’t know what ‘evidence’ you’re talking about, but it seems to me that ticket sales for The Beggar’s Opera have been very good indeed - word of mouth seems to be doing its job. Whilst undoubtedly a significant number of people have been pissed off by the show, a large number - including subscribers I have spoken to personally –find it refreshing. The Audience Reviews section on the Lyceum website reinforces this idea. The good audiences the show is attracting must be coming from somewhere!

All this is interesting to me, but in the end of course I do what I do, make the work I want to make, in the way I want to make it. I do believe that theatre makers have to be fearless rather than conservative. Too many embrace the idea of experiment, and do plenty of talking about it, but really are afraid of it. I want to see more people putting their money where their mouth is.

By the way, if you enjoyed ‘Dolls’ and ‘Midsummer’ I’m sure you would have enjoyed ‘Subway’, our 2007 collaboration with seven musicians from Kosovo, which may enjoy a revival next year.

Anonymous said...

I saw The Beggar’s Opera last night and really loved it – it’s exciting to see something so bold and colourful on stage. But I know people who have hated it – people who work in the theatre and people who don’t. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but that’s ok surely – you can’t please everyone, all of the time.

It’s great that this show is appealing to a younger audience. Perhaps this is at the expense of some regular audience members, but I don’t think that is such a big issue. I think the Lyceum should be commended for making such a brave decision. Theatre should be exciting, and even if The Beggar’s Opera isn’t to your taste, you can’t deny that it has started an exciting debate.

Gillian said...

I am a subscriber at the Lyceum and I have to say there are plenty of us who find The Beggar's Opera a refreshing change from the usual middle of the road productions. There are too many complainers and stuck in the muds who moan about everything and some of us are a bit tired of it. There is a place for a diverse range of plays in a season and this was something different and challenging and in the end, extremely rewarding. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Emma said...

I also saw the show and loved it. It was fantastic, brave and bold and I definitely commend the Lyceum for programming such a piece of theatre. With reference to the above comment that subscribers such as myself didn't 'choose' to watch the show and should have been given the choice to swap the tickets, surely that defeats the point and what the Lyceum are trying to do. Obviously if you say to the stick in the muds "this is challenging and new and you may not like it" they are going to shy away from it and never experience anything new which was surely the point. Fortune favours the brave!

Statler said...

Thanks for the comments - looks like Matthew was perhaps right in suggesting we had underestimated the willingness of the Lyceum audience and even subscribers to try something different.

As for 'evidence' of the show being a step too far for some, well that was largely based on our experience of sitting with them in the stalls.

Of course we can't know for some time what the long term impact of the show is - positive or negative, and it will be interesting to see what is programmed for future seasons.

We're looking forward to taking a second look at the show at Tramway, and that says more about our thoughts on it than anything else.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that Mark Thompson was right to put The Beggar's Opera on his stage, or even that it's a show that is brave, dangerous & new with a wide appeal. I was very excited to see the heights the company were reaching for, but simply put; it was beyond their grasp. This is a bad show. No amount of debate can or will change that.

It's too busy, too muddled, too long (yet too short for an interval) & was verging on pantomime.

The actors were miked up so I had to strain to appreciated who was speaking, I missed the wonderful effect at the top by struggling to find where my focus should be, I couldn't understand a single lyric from the band & I cared not a jot for the protagonist.

This is brave theatre, but not brave theatre at it's best.

Katie S said...

Wow, Anonymous seems pretty opinionated… ‘no about of debate can change that.’ !! However obviously people above disagree. Me too. I didn’t find it busy or muddled - and what’s wrong with it verging on pantomime? I’d even say it didn’t verge, it was, and so what? Using that as a blanket criticism betrays limited and conservative tastes. That was one of the things I loved about it. It was obviously intentional, unapologetic, grotesque. Maybe not you your apparently limited tastes, but maybe that says more about you. Go see more theatre. I thought it was brilliant, one of the best shows I’ve seen in the last couple of years.

Robyn said...

This show really has sparked up some debate. People are claiming it is like Marmite - either you love it or you hate it. I disagree. I thought some of the production was excellent - the set, the costumes, the music and some of the performances were brilliant, really brilliant.

But I didn't enjoy the show. I wouldn't encourage anyone to go and see it, other than to hear where their opinion falls - five stars or one?

There have been many criticisms of the text and of the language the characters use. I think this is all fair. But I think the main problem for me was the story. Who cares about MacHeath? Polly and Lucy apparently do, but I couldn't give a hoot. The story was like an episode of coronation street.

According to some, the music, video, costumes and set were so fantastic that they compensated for the poor story. And I agree that to an extent they do - had this same text been performed without all the music, set, costumes and video it would have been absolutely dreadful, I don't think it would have been compared to marmite and I don't even think young audiences would have enjoyed it. So just because the production values are excellent means that the show is excellent? I don't think so. If the production values are so excellent it rather suggests that everything else should be excellent. Should we not expect a show in which the the story and the text is equally excellent?

After watching The Beggar's Opera I felt I should have been wowed. The company are obviously capable of so much - as I said, so much of the production was really excellent. But, I wasn't wowed. I didn't care much for it at all. I didn't really connect with it, other than to criticise it - and I don't go to the theatre in order to discuss and criticise theatre practice - I'll leave that to the professionals - I go for entertainment, and excellent stage entertainment, in my opinion, leaves you thinking about nothing else but what is happening on stage.

However, even though I didn't care much for this show, I have taken the time to write this. It has generated debate. It may have been better had the debate been generated by a truly excellent piece of theatre, but I'm not sure that can ever happen.

What was Matthew Lenton trying to do? Start a debate? Or create a truly excellent show? Some might say he has done both. I doubt that it is possible to really achieve both - at least not with the same show.

I am very much eager to see what he does next. I doubt that he will feel fulfilled just simply stirring up debate, so here's to another Interiors. Which was just excellent. (Apologies for over using 'excellent'!)

Grant said...

I think TBO was genius… ALMOST. Because what they should have done was get rid of the play altogether and stage a rock concert on its themes. As it is the show is still a bit weighed down by the play, which as a play just isn’t that great (and the story in this production is almost exactly the same as the story of John Gay’s original). But what I thought was great about it when I saw it at the Lyceum was precisely that it challenged what a play was. Also, as far as I could see the WHOLE POINT was that it was like a soap opera, like lives today are turned into celebrity soap operas through reality tv and heat and the like. Robyn, you’re missing the point and those determined to see a play in a conventional way probably wont like it.

dylan said...

well what can i say went to see the beggars opera last night the 14th of October in Coventry it was visually stunning the actors were brilliant and the music was awesome this sums the beggars opera up really.Keep up the good work vanishing point lets see more modern productions at the Belgrade in Coventry

Margaret Kirk said...

It is very exciting to see such debate around a play, and I applaud Matthew's willingness to join in, in such even-handed tones. And the review is excellent, even if I disagree with some particulars and feel that the claim that "we are not critic" is slightly disingenious.

I do feel that the play sits in an awkward middle ground, between youth and more "traditional" audiences. I am not entirely convinced that Quinn are going to appeal to the student demographic, regardless of their own worth: they have a sound that appeals to slightly older music fans: their connection to cabaret does mark them out as a theatrical proposition and don't have the urgent energy that often characterises youthful pop and rock.

Equally, the aside that comic book territory doesn't need deep characterisation sits uncomfortably for me. Comic books grew up in about 1986: Since Beggars acknowledges Watchmen and V for Vendetta as influences, Matthew Lenton knows this.

That this piece was performed in the Lyceum gives it much of its radicalism: I don't think it is going to impress a Tramway audience, that is familiar with all sorts of modern stage technique, from Belgian dance to Live Art (I am a Tramhead, but went over to the Lyceum for this one). And the debate is all about the techniques and strategy, not the content, suggesting a work that shows off its trappings to the detriment of the intent.

The reading that this is a show about "style over substance" is brilliant, does counter my objection and cuts to the core of the debate around the show. The way that Vanishing Point are using the diverse reviews celebrates the diversity of critical opinion in a far more generous way that claims that the critics have their own agenda. Of course they do. That they have an agenda is what makes them worth reading.

Of course, I have an agenda, too. I am a critic and want to pay respect to View From The Stalls for their entertaining and important criticism. I also want Vanishing Point to be free to fail -ultimately, I believe Beggars Opera does fail - because there is a vibrancy in this company that allows it to take these risks. So while I would not agree with the five star review, I am glad that they received it.

Statler said...

Thanks for all the recent comments - it's great to see so many people willing to share their thoughts on the show. And love it or hate it, there is no denying it has provoked a reaction and I suspect most artists would regard that as a success in itself.

And thanks Margaret for your kind comments about View From The Stalls. I'll hold my hands up to the 'comic book' reference being a convenient and potentially unfair 'shorthand'.

But we do believe there are significant differences between what we do here and 'critics'. We don't go to shows so we can write about them - we just happen to write about the shows we see. We don't have editors choosing what we should see and as we pay for our tickets we only book for shows we genuinely expect to enjoy. I also think the fact that we try to reflect both of our views in our comments highlights that we don't claim to offer anything other than a largely subjective view of a show. And the day we feel the need to take a notepad into a show with us is the day we'll stop going to the theatre!

Sophie said...

As a drama student, I would suggest that I am part of the demographic that is suggested as that which would most enjoy this production of The Beggar's Opera- presumably this judgement is made based on the contemporary music choice as a narrative, asthetically stunning set and beautiful (if slightly distracting) costume design. However, I think that even as a young person I just wanted more from the show. The characters seemed completely two-dimensional, and the ending utterly frustrating. I didn't care about the characters in the least and felt completely detached from the action- whether this was intentional I don't know, but I didn't enjoy it, as a show. Earlier comments ring true regarding the awful sound levels, there doesn't seem a point in using a live band as a narrative device if there is no way of understanding the lyrics. I just feel there is no use in casting the show off as being for a different demographic to the one you are a part of simply because you didn't take much from it- I didn't either.

Anonymous said...

You get what you look for. If you want to empathise with characters go and see something else. There were no problems with sound when I saw it.

Statler said...

It's great to see the breadth and depth of feeling the show has provoked - thanks for all your comments.

I'm just back from a repeat viewing now it's reached Tramway in Glasgow and I still think it's a fantastic piece of theatre (and I could make out just about all the lyrics this time!). It seemed to go down really well with the Glasgow audience, if not quite the standing ovations I thought it might receive. Perhaps that's being saved for Saturday night.

A couple of additional observations from further thought and my second visit. Firstly, anyone who didn't think there was enough here to make them think wasn't paying enough attention. And secondly, it hit me earlier this week that (unsurprisingly really) the true comparison of the piece is actually traditional opera. For those who love opera, it isn't about being able to hear or understand the libretto (which is usually dreadfully clunky anyway). It's about the passion, the imagery, the energy and the music. I think Matthew was pointing in that direction with his earlier comment but I appreciate it clearer now.

And I hope there are plans to release the soundtrack!

Anonymous said...

matt lentons self-congratulatory tone i find hard to take. i havent seen the show. the vast majority of people i speak to who have seen it have not been fans. fine. im sure there's many who loved it. its that mr lenton believes himself to be some kind of dangerous theatrical auteur that really makes me laugh. get over yourself mate. its just the theatre. in my experience, ALL shows tend to split opinion.