Venue: Bristol Old Vic
Producers: Kneehigh with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse
Greensleeves. It’s the quintessential folk melody for the green and pleasant land that is (or was?) England. With a delicious sense of dramatic irony, John Gay used it to serenade the villainous Macheath, standing high on the gallows with a noose around his neck, at the climax of his 1728 masterpiece The Beggar’s Opera.
With similarly devastating theatrical daring, Kneehigh deconstructs that sweet air, turning it into a pounding, discordant, catatonic rock anthem, cranked up to full volume as the set darkens and disintegrates, the carcass of a sea monster descends from on high and chaos reigns supreme. The show is over. Merry England is no more.
Three centuries on, it is impossible to miss this powerful metaphor for a modern world bedevilled by greed, corruption, violence, deception and dishonesty. Maybe ’twas ever thus, but with the country currently drifting rudderless in a sea of political fear and uncertainty, this lightning bolt of a production hammers home our worst fears.
The prospect of a long overdue revival began with the music. When Kneehigh’s regular collaborator Charles Hazlewood approached the company’s artistic directors Carl Grose and Mike Shepherd with the idea of a new, updated version for the 21st century, his musical vision lit the touch paper under their collective imagination. So snugly does Kneehigh’s unfettered physical expressionist style fit with Gay’s subversive original that the wonder is that it took them so long to get around to it.
The newly forged cryptic title derives from a modern urban myth of a dog which dies while in the care of a young woman from New York. In desperation, she hides the corpse in a suitcase, which is subsequently stolen by a young man – who is never seen again. Nor, indeed, is the dog. On stage, a delightfully lifelike dog puppet provides some equally disarming moments of laughter and confusion in a non-stop production full of cartoony imagery and overblown characters.
Sticking with the canine theme, Hazlewood has crafted a dazzling ‘mongrel score’ containing a heady combination of rock, disco, ska, grime, new wave, punk, pop, counterpointed by soothing love songs and 18th century melodies. It relentlessly drives forward Grose’s salty, well rounded script and is perfectly matched by Shepherd’s setting, backstage in the seedy world of vaudeville and music hall.
At the centre of Mike Vale’s ramshackle, agit prop staging is a Punch and Judy booth, where the Lord and Lady of Misrule act as chorus and barometer of what has gone and what is to come.
Gay’s gallery of 18th century London ne-er do wells is here portrayed as a motley assortment of politicians, pimps, prostitutes, thieves and murderers. But there is a pleasing subtlety in the characterisations. Angela Hardie’s Polly Peachum is far from all sweetness and light; Dominic Marsh plays Macheath as a laddish criminal, who has not entirely lost his moral compass. Martin Hyder’s swaggering Peachum rules the roost, except when his wife is around – a grotesquely seductive Rina Fatania, salivating at the prospect of bumping off anyone who gets in the way of their political ambition and fortune building.
Kilted Giles King is an amusingly over-enthusiastic copper Constable Lockit, while young Georgia Frost is outstanding as an androgynous, vulnerable Filch, far removed from traditional interpretations of a scummy street hoodlum.
Ever present is the constantly changing musical road map, played live on stage by James Gow, Dave Johnzy and cast members against a full blown background soundscape. The volume and impact reach fever pitch in a climax brimming over with strange, ugly sounds and sights redolent of the unnerving times in which we are living.
At Galway International Arts Festival until 20 July 2019