The beautiful grounds of Wadham college are a long way away from Bertolt Brecht’s vision of the dark criminal underbelly of Victorian London. Yet the most commanding achievement of Poppy Clifford and Louise Mayer-Jacqueline’s production is its ability to translate and define the meanings of the spaces they use, carving a ubiquitous stage from the early 17th century surroundings of Wadham’s grounds. The stunning architectural drama of Wadham proves a bountiful scaffold on which Clifford and Mayer-Jacqueline hang Brecht and Weill’s piece, stretching the narrative over totally contrasting settings in a feat of theatrical gymnastics that perfectly captures the generically amorphous nature of the play.
Inspired by John Gay’s 1728 satire The Beggar’s Opera, this ‘play with music’ is a quirky cat-and-mouse between Macheath (Oscar Hansen), the magnetically seductive criminal antihero, and the Peachums (Emma-Ben Lewis and Indyana Schneider), the conniving couple with a business monopoly over London’s beggars, bearing an almost familial resemblance to Les Mis’ famous Thenardiers. Macheath’s serial womanising threatens to usher in his downfall when the conflicting interests of his lovers, Polly Peachum (Emelye Moulton), Low-Dive Jenny (India Phillips) and Lucy Brown (Jasmin Yang-Spooner) converge. Despite the manoeuvrings of the shady Tiger Brown (Samuel Dunnett), Macheath’s fate is only resolved through one of the most beloved deus ex machinas in modern theatre in a characteristically Brechtian act of comic surrealism.
Acting and singing talent abound in this production.
Acting and singing talent abound in this production. The unholy trinity of the Peachums are the highlight, each of the three masterfully drawing out the nefarious idiosyncrasies of their characters festering beneath the general moral pollution. A perennial audience favourite, the Peachums three compete for audience laughs, with Mrs. Peachum (Indyana Schneider) in particular stunning with a powerful operatic vocal. The character of Jenny is the perfect fit for India Phillips, and it is easy to see why: after her cheeky outing in Made in Dagenham, she is fast becoming my favourite actress of the sassy comeback and teasing flirtation. Indeed, all of the cast and crew deserve applause for their determined, and crucially sustained performances in the face of adversity (adversity appearing, on this occasion, under the guise of heavy rain and cold), with Polly Peachum (Emelye Moulton) unbelievably and coolly maintaining character regardless of everything the great British weather could throw at her.
Despite the downpour and the general downcast gloom, I was heartened to see the production make clever and sustained use of visual and musical motifs, particularly important for overall cohesion given the shifting settings. Undeterred by the different architectural issues that each space presented, protest slogans in the same angry typography cropped up insistently in each setting, making the real political issues of the play simmering underneath the eccentric comedy unmistakable. The live band was particularly good, leaving the bright jazz and late 1920s German dance-music infused score ringing in my head for hours after. The boundaries between actor, musician, lighting crew and even audience were blurred, as cast and crew doubled up on stagecraft roles, perfectly embodying Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt concept of theatre.
As I mentioned at the start, this production stunned for its ability to use space.
My criticisms lie with the scene transitions and the way in which the audience fit in each setting. Actors broke character in the transitions between settings, and despite the friendly and cheerful guides, in the words of one fellow audience member, it meant that the ‘magic was destroyed.’ The staging of this production proved a victim of its own success; a sold out show meant that audience numbers swelled to push at the limits of each room’s capacity, which created problems particularly at the college bar and in the stairwell scenes. Sadly for the vertically challenged like myself, this meant that a single person of just average height could dash all my hopes of being able to see the spectacle, an issue which could have been resolved by incorporating some form of staggered seating, even if it was just a bench, to divide the audience up more manageably. The fluid and changeable nature of the setting and stagecraft implored to be exploited, but this was not capitalised upon as wholly as I would have liked to have seen; increased audience participation and more seamless transitions would have been welcome additions.
Nevertheless, there was one thing that remained no matter where the shifts of narrative and setting took us: the audience’s gasps of awe as we stepped into each new place. As I mentioned at the start, this production stunned for its ability to use space. It uses a well-known and popular play to showcase the hidden and unfamiliar beauty of Wadham, in a really striking tribute to the sheer architectural theatre of the college that opened its doors to us on a cold, rainy evening.