It’s almost a relief to hear that when The Beggar’s Opera comes to the Edinburgh International Festival in August, it won’t be set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a convict ship or in any of the other unexpected locations to which this irrepressible work has been taken over the years.
Instead John Gay’s “Newgate Pastoral”, which was the hit of 1728 London, is heading back to its home turf. Nevertheless, there is a twist. The criminal antics and love struggles of the Peachums, Lockits and highwayman Macheath unfold in the British capital in the Brexit era rather than in Hogarth’s time.
“It didn’t make any sense to me to set it in the 18th century,” explains Robert Carsen, the in-demand Canadian director behind this new production. “I felt we should respect the topical modernity of the piece and try to find that same irreverent spirit and set it in London today.”
The 64-year-old, who has dates in the diary directing at the Komische Oper in Berlin and La Scala in Milan, is speaking to me a day later than expected after he realised that he was going to a concert at his local church. He’s full of enthusiasm after a successful opening fortnight for his Beggar’s Opera at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. “The French took to it and laughed a lot. We went to Italy, and people laughed at different places. And now we’re coming to an English-speaking audience, and so we’re very excited,” he says.
Chief among Carsen’s concerns was how to make this cynical satire — in which criminal leader Peachum and corrupt jailer Lockit try to send Macheath to the gallows — seem contemporary. “Satire consists almost entirely of topical references. There’s a whole layer of political references that don’t mean anything to us today at all: Walpole’s government, the famous criminals,” explains Carsen. “So [the dramaturge] Ian Burton and I have rewritten the text.”
The Beggar’s Opera is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, from August 16 to 19. Box office: 0131 473 2000