The Convict's Opera (Stephen Jeffreys – adapted from The Beggar's Opera by John Gay): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre

I believe in its original incarnation, The Beggar’s Opera was quite a searing look at 18th century society. The same cannot be said of its reworking into The Convict’s Opera.

The basic premise is that a number of prisoners on a convict ship bound for Australia are given permission to put on a production of The Beggar’s Opera. So rehearsals of portions of the Opera are seen (fortunately in chronological order) interspersed with non-rehearsal scenes in which we learn about the convicts’ backgrounds, see the effect being involved in the play has on them and follow events such as a planned mutiny. There was enough plot and characterisation to keep the whole thing moving along, but nothing all that powerful or insightful about it.

Original songs from The Beggar’s Opera were mixed with more modern numbers, such as Sailing, 500 Miles, You’re So Vain and I Want to be Straight – though often with the words somewhat changed to fit the historical setting. There was no separate orchestra: where there was music, it was provided by the actors themselves, playing instruments on stage (or, if they weren’t actually playing them, doing a very, very good impersonation). For some reason, the actors seemed a little less comfortable with the very simple settings of the original songs, whereas some (though not all) of the modern songs were delivered very effectively. Overall, I thought the mix of old and new worked reasonably well, but not outstandingly so.

This was a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint: five of the actors were Australian, and five from the British company. I thought the cast was solid but not brilliant, with the best performances probably being Catherine Russell (Mrs Peachum/Bett Rock) and Brian Protheroe (Peachum/Ben Barnwell). I would also be curious to know whether the costume design was done before or after Juan Jackson was cast as Macheath/Harry Morton. Not that many actors have the physique for a final entrance in nothing more than a pair of budgie-smugglers, but he absolutely did!

Stephen Jeffreys, who did the adaptation, had previously written The Art of War, which was one of my favourite plays of 2007. The Convict’s Opera wasn’t painful to sit through, but neither did it even come close to the achievement of Art of War.

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