John Gay’s original vision of a criminal underworld was steeped in satirical criticism of the eighteenth century aristocracy, where common social values are diminished to critique the abuses of power and wealth in a morally bankrupt society.
Vanishing Point’s drastic re-imagining of The Beggar’s Opera is described by its director Matthew Lenton as “not staging a play, but creating one”. The stage depicts a city’s underbelly with scattered sand dunes from which masked robbers rise up to face a skylight into the urban landscape above.
Black-masked socialites waltz by, unaware of the danger that lurks below, which robs and strips them to near nakedness of their possessions in a “’redistribution of wealth” that takes no prisoners.But these figures are no Robin Hood vigilantes; the arrogant thieves swagger around the stage displaying a cocksure bravado and comic Scottish twang that feels more Asbo culture than eighteenth century drama.
This appears to be the key to the play’s modern update. Marital problems are discussed with talks of pre-nuptial agreements akin to modern celebrity culture; cartoon-style magazine headlines flash overhead for the criminals to stare up at from the hideout in near religious fashion; and the gaudy Mrs. Peacham brags about her Jimmy Choo heels bought with dirty money.
Such nuances may be deemed superficial, yet they are instantly relatable for the modern audience, and allow for a cheeky and successful update of Gay’s original ideas.
At the centre of all this comic debauchery is notorious robber MacHeath, who is not so much torn between his wife and pregnant girlfriend, but dragged in both directions with little care for either.
As he cries the famous words: “A man who loves money, might as well be contented with one guinea, as I with one woman,” he sums up the message of greed perfectly. Mixing Scottish colloquialisms and casual swearing with excerpts from Gay’s original language allows for a comedy that still respects the original text yet gains hearty laughs from the audience, such as when one beggar is subjected to an onslaught of eloquent abuse from MacHeath only to retort, “I’m pure heavy sorry, man.” To stage such language in Glasgow gains solid, hearty laughs.
The female characters are dubious and polarised, much like the modern society it is attempting to portray. The bitchy Mrs. Peacham recalls a drag queen in her flamboyant speech and mannerisms, and her willingness to label her daughter a whore for being married to MacHeath is ironic and laughable. Yet Polly Peacham is an insipid creature, who between doe-eyed exchanges with the intense MacHeath and his hysterically funny girlfriend Lucy Lockit, appears to whimper noiselessly against the furore of the rest of the cast. Her loving loyalty to her husband is her emotional undoing, but as she whines weakly and protests with such little vigour, it’s hard to take her performance of the role seriously. Throughout the drama, women are debased, objectified and little considered in terms of emotion and reputation.
The parading of prostitutes in gimp masks creates an uncomfortably forced representation of this sexualised treatment of women. However noisily and stubbornly they may protest, the play finds a rather tragic conclusion to the female sense of worth and agency.
One huge modern update of the performance is the onstage live presence of Scottish indie group A Band Called Quinn, who were approached to write new material specifically for the play. Scenes onstage that act as reflections of unfolding events are acted alongside the bands performance, bringing a youthful approach that allows lyrical expressions of key scenes to occur simultaneously in music and drama. The most inspired feature of the performance, however, is the running televised news coverage of onstage events by fame-worshipping reporter Susan Sanderson, who is both outwardly repelled by and not-so-secretly infatuated with the mysterious figure of MacHeath. As he escapes jail — and is eventually walked to the gallows — her commentary is both hilarious and dark in its mirroring of societies morbid obsession with the failed celebrity.