Festival Opera

The Beggar’s Opera

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Five stars

Keith Bruce

AT ONCE completely coherent on its own terms, and kaleidoscopically multi-layered, with cultural references that effortlessly span over three centuries, Robert Carsen’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord staging of John Gay’s “ballad opera”, with onstage music by William Christie’s baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants, is the sort of show you could watch multiple times and find new details to marvel and chuckle at.

From the very start, as the cast burst out of James Brandily’s cardboard box city set, there is visual pun on “looting” and “lute-ing” and that sort of plundering threads all the way through the production. There’s a Donald Trump hand gesture, a direct quote from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, gags about product-placement in contemporary film and nods to the era of silent movies, a quintet of Spice-ish Girls, pastiche of everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Hamilton hip-hop, and a final tableau that mimics Leonardo’s Last Supper. Possibly less deliberate is the most pivotal use of a pool table since the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. Nothing is sacred, or safe, and that is surely the message of the original work – probably best known via Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera.

Superb though the recent London National Theatre version of that show was, this is much more of-the-moment, full of references to the UK’s current wretched political situation, with some specifically local details added in for the local Edinburgh audience as well. The language is ripe, but never gratuitously so, and it is very funny, even if you daren’t laugh too long at one thing for fear of missing the next.

The instrumentalists are marvellous, and the music works as fittingly as Weill’s to the tale – nothing says “doomed romance” or “blind lust” as eloquently as a quasi-Elizabethan tune – and although the singing of the cast is patchy, it works exactly as the sprechgesang of the Threepenny Opera does. Having a very pretty Macheath in Benjamin Purkiss works a treat, while Beverley Klein makes Mrs Peachum such a pivotal character it redresses some of the misogyny that is inherent in the work.

Further performances to Sunday.