The Convict's Opera | STC/Out of JointLeft - Juan Jackson and cast. Cover - Brian Protheroe, Karina Fernandez and Peter Cousens. Photos - Olivia Martin Maguire

After being subjected to a few duds recently it’s truly refreshing to see a piece of theatre that is of such high quality, something which stimulates, entertains and, pardon the pun, transports…

Stephen Jeffreys’ play The Convict’s Opera is another new work from this British playwright which is premiering on foreign shores (some will recall his fascinating play The Art of War from last year, which was likewise first produced by The STC), and in this instance there could hardly be a more appropriate place than Sydney. Like Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Jeffreys' play is an adaptation of John Gay’s classic The Beggar’s Opera, although then as now it is closer to a modern musical than it is operatic, poaching popular tunes from across a wide stretch of history.
Jeffreys’ premise is that a small group of convicts sentenced to transportation gain permission from their uptight captain to put on a play – a production of The Beggar’s Opera. Thus we have a play-within-a-play, with the narrative of Gay’s seminal work fully integrated throughout the drama. Gay’s work is played largely straight and in chronological order as the convicts rehearse the scenes over the course of their miserable voyage bound for Botany Bay, interspersed with moments of the “real” lives of these convicts playing the parts. Naturally, there are thematic resonances and parallels between characters and events in the play and those of the convict players, and this balance between Gay’s world and the one taking place onboard the festering ship is perfectly executed by Jeffreys’ deft script.

Indeed, it is no small achievement to present two parallel stories in which the characters of the convicts and the roles they adopt as performers all come across as distinct, well-rounded characters. Of course, one has to go along with various theatrical conceits, such as these convicts actually being very good actors with clear delineations between their “real” characters and those they perform within the onboard play (one early scene where the convict playing Macheath transitions from an extremely poor actor when playing a bit part but thereafter flourishes as the roguish lead doesn’t quite play). There are also obvious anachronisms in using such a wide variety of music from traditional pieces through to 20th Century pop songs, but ideally one shouldn’t be fazed. It all works, and it works brilliantly. The shifting from play to play-within-a-play is seamlessly written and skillfully executed.

Jeffreys’ impromptu troupe of criminal thesps includes diverse personalities and backgrounds, from common thieves to a “respectable” forger, an arsonist and political prisoners, as well as the ship’s vicar shoehorned into the company. Directed by a former transvestite prostitute, many of these convicts find a fleeting sense of freedom and escape in rehearsing this play, none more so than the former American slave who takes on the magnetic antihero role of Macheath. Being a satire that was revolutionary for depicting the lives and loves of the criminal classes in a manner traditionally only afforded to the respectable, the appeal to the convict cast is obvious, even if not directly discussed by the characters. Eventually both the onboard and onstage plots simultaneously come to a head and converge in a way that, although perhaps not unexpected for some, is tremendously uplifting.

This excellent new play has been brilliantly realised by eminent UK director Max Stafford-Clark, with economic, highly effective staging on a deliberately shallow set that ultilises a bare minimum of Sydney Theatre’s large stage, creating a pervasive impression of the convicts’ captivity. Employing vaguely rather than slavishly historical costumes and a very open, transparent theatricality in the treatment of props, instruments and the few undisguised instances of trebling up (some actors play two “real” parts on the ship in addition to their Beggar’s Opera roles), you might think the production’s use of these techniques could be potentially confusing. Perhaps in lesser hands they might be, as one can well imagine that the obvious route would be to depict the “reality” of the ship with greater naturalism compared to the more obvious performativity of the rehearsal scenes, so as to draw a more overt distinction. However under Stafford-Clark’s expert eye the play is actually enhanced by doing quite the opposite, with this convergence of theatrical technique between the two worlds enhancing the parallels between them, and with the talented actors involved there is never any sense of confusion.

The cast are all of great talent and form an ensemble possessing palpable chemistry. Local performers Amelia Cormack and Ali McGregor are tremendous as the duelling female leads Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, both on the ship and as their roles in the play, each lending their own intriguing, sexy, dangerous and unique touches to these ostensibly similar but strongly distinct double roles. Juan Jackson displays physical dynamism and a captivating singing voice (not to mention an eye-popping physique) as both Macheath and his performer Harry Morton, gradually becoming the star of the show. An almost unrecognisable Peter Cousens is also excellent as Lockit, but is even more intriguing as Eddie Cosgrove, the Irish political prisoner who plays him.

UK imports Brian Protheroe and Catherine Russell are exceptional as the wily Mr. and Mrs. Peachum and their well-developed portrayers, lighting up the stage with every opportunity but never going too far so as to steal the scene. Glenn Butcher excels as both the convicts’ director, but also in a mildly incongruous additional role as John Gay himself, somehow metatheatrically present at both the head and tail of the whole event. 

Indeed, given the predominantly UK-imported cast, director and playwright, this co-production between the STC and Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint theatre company seems heavily weighted towards the British side of the scales. And yet, this is all rather appropriate, because while many of us like to think of our convict ancestors as Australians (mine rather enterprisingly stole a gold watch), they undoubtedly would not have thought of themselves as such, and certainly not on the voyage over.

That said, however, there is something oddly proto-Australian about this whole affair. Perhaps it is wistful thinking, a sense of our own identification with these poor souls as our forebears and how their outcast nature came to be seen as an important defining element in our cultural identity. Whatever it is, one can’t help but watch the final moments of this play and feel a strong sense of hope, that upon landfall these convicts see not merely the penal colony they have feared, but something new, something… better?

At the risk of indulging in a touch of knee-jerk pommy-bashing, one might almost be surprised to think an Englishman penned these rather Australian closing sentiments.

Filled with great humour and pathos, beautiful and surprising music, memorable characters and many terrific performances, The Convict’s Opera is an absolute must see. Would that we saw more shows of such a high standard.

Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint present
The Convict’s Opera
By Stephen Jeffreys, adapted from The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay

Venue: Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Previews: 30 September to 3 October 2008 at 8pm
Season: Saturday 4 October to 25 October 2008
Twilights: Mon 6 October, Mon 13 October, Mon 20 October at 6:30pm
Evenings: Tuesday – Saturday 8pm
Matinees: Wednesday 8 October 1pm, Sat 11 October 2pm, Wednesday 15 October 12.15pm, Saturday, 18 October 2pm, Wednesday 22 October 1pm, Saturday 25 October 2pm
Night with actors: 13 October at 6.30pm post-show discussion with the cast and creative team
Tickets: $77 / $62 concession  matinee $68 / $56 concession
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 / ticketek 132 849 /

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