“Two acting companies on a convict
ship?” queries one character, to which another replies, “They might do The Recruiting Officer
.” Thus does
Stephen Jeffreys’ rewrite and relocation of The Beggar’s Opera
acknowledge Our Country’s Good
by Timberlake Wertenbaker, written for director Max Stafford-Clark at
the Royal Court some 20 years ago and likewise dealing with a dramatic
production by a cast of criminal transportees. There is, Stafford-Clark
acknowledges, something of a second-bite-of-the-cherry air to this
enterprise, currently being toured in a co-production by his Out Of
Joint company and Sydney Theatre Company.
Jeffreys is less earnest than Wertenbaker, without being less serious.
The same general issues arise in both plays: gender, class, sexuality,
punishment. However, they feel more glancing on this occasion. This may
be partly due to the character of the original work: John Gay’s 1728
ballad opera was a keen satire, and this hybrid piece usually has
difficulty changing tone, on those occasions when it wants to, between
the play-within-the-play and the events on the ship’s five-month voyage
to Australia. No matter is probed too deeply, whether it is
convict-director William Vaughan’s homosexuality and past as a “molly”,
cast member Amelia Whiting’s seduction of the vicar on board in order
to improve her lot at her destination, nor even Grace Madden’s
compulsion to arson, which looks as if it may become dramatically
significant but is merely a damp squib.
Just as Gay’s work included elements of popular airs, ballads and
arias, so Jeffreys adds to those further extracts from, or rewritten
versions of, songs ranging from “Stand By Me” and “You’re So Vain” to
“I Fought The Law” and his sometime collaborator the late Ian Dury’s “I
Wanna Be Straight” (with still more included in the published
playscript). Stafford-Clark aims for an air of intimacy slightly at
odds with the amphitheatrical Salisbury Playhouse configuration;
placing pairs of schoolchildren in two-seater makeshift boxes on either
side of the stage makes for amiability but little structural impact.
Similarly, the deliberate “poor theatre” aesthetic (scarcely any prop
is more intricate than a wire crate), instead of inducing in us the
intended Brechtian attitude of questioning engagement, adds to the
sensation that it’s a bit of a rollick. Both play and production are
intelligent and adept, but there feels to be oddly little at stake.
Written for the Financial