When I say that The Beggar's Opera is a savage satire on capitalism, it may look as if I am stating the blindingly obvious. When I say this not of John Gay's original or Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera, but of a version by Vaclav Havel, it may look as if I am spectacularly missing the point. Havel wrote it in 1972, when the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had forced him out of any writing job and into work in a brewery. It received a single Czech performance in 1975, inadvertently let through the net by the authorities. It is clearly intended to be, and brilliantly succeeds in being, an indictment of the labyrinthine strategies of deception and the informant networks of the Communist state.
But in 2003, with Havel about to leave office after two terms as Czech president and his Beggar's Opera receiving its British première as the tenth Havel play to be staged at Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre, the post-Communist climate of corporatism gives the piece yet another twist of meaning. We still see the infernally intricate man-against-man system of spies and grasses set up in the London underworld by police chief Lockit as a symbol of the Communist state's strategies both for keeping tabs on its citizenry and, just as importantly, for keeping them in fear of such surveillance. But as Willy Peachum attempts to walk the line between running his entire criminal network as an arm of the police operation and creaming a little off surreptitiously for himself... as Lockit, Peachum and the maverick Macheath double-, triple- and quadruple-cross each other... as Mac explains his womanising at length, and the whore Jenny in turn gives varying accounts of her repeated betrayal of him... it can all be read equally in a contemporary context of "spin", where everyone is repeatedly trying to justify even to themselves the unjustifiable, and self-interest is served by selling oneself out to the big boys. Goodbye dictatorship of the proletariat, hello global market. No wonder the programme reprints the old Czech joke: "Under capitalism, man exploits his fellow man, whereas under Communism it's the other way round."
Havel is of course dizzyingly skilled at writing blackly comic hollow rhetoric. The amount of it in this play needs to be blended well to make it digestible in such volume; this is achieved not just by the writer's use of Gay's story, but by director Geoffrey Beevers deliberately staging it with an air of period artificiality (which only Caitlin Mottram's Jenny, appealing though she is, does not quite settle into). David Timson as Peachum is charmingly vexed as he tries to balance the various scams he's perpetrating and those being practised upon him; Bruce Alexander's Lockit is an apparatchik who enjoys his work that worrying bit too much; Howard Saddler has exactly the kind of smooth charm and persistent allure to enable Macheath to get away with it even as he explains his bigamy to both wives at once. And for two and a half hours, Havel blends enjoyment with critique more comprehensively than he can have imagined at the time of writing.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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