Martin Hyder and Rina Fatina in ‘Dead Dog in a Suitcase’
Through all the Employments of Life
Each Neighbour abuses his Brother;
Whore and Rogue they call Husband and Wife:
All Professions be-rogue one another:
The Priest calls the Lawyer a Cheat,
The Lawyer be-knaves the Divine:
And the Statesman, because he’s so great,
Thinks his Trade as honest as mine.
In the 1720s, when John Gay wrote his timeless and fantastically successful The Beggar’s Opera, trust in politicians was almost non-existent, men had been ruined, and the national economy weakened, by the collapse of the South Sea Company. The parallels with our own time need little elaboration; as Paul Crewe, the producer of Dead Dog in a Suitcase, the Liverpool Everyman and Kneehigh re-creation remarks in the production’s programme:
We’re still confronting a world in which there is no trust in politicians; where bankers wreck economies and lives, yet collect huge bonuses; in which the power of wealth and celebrity is celebrated, the law is often found to be corrupt, but where millions live in poverty and degradation. What is the world coming to?
An engraving by Hogarth shows actors wearing animal masks performing a song from Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’.
Dead Dog, seen this week, is a kaleidoscopic rewrite and update of John Gay’s original in which writer Carl Grose has returned to the spirit, if not the text, of the source, ignoring Brecht’s better-known re-interpretation. The characters’ names have not, however, been changed to protect the innocent. We still have the contract killer Macheath (later transformed into Mack the Knife, in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera), hired by the Peachums to murder the town’s mayor as the prelude to a fixed mayoral election. It’s an old story of power, corruption and lies. Les Peachum is a businessman who fears that the incumbent mayor knows too much about his shady dealings (buildings made of his shoddy concrete, and a business selling pilchards poisoned by the toxic waste poured into the bay by another of his operations.
Grose doesn’t use Peachum’s line from Gay’s original, though it fits:
No Gentleman is ever look’d upon the worse for killing a Man in his own Defence; and if Business cannot be carried on without it, what would you have a Gentleman do?
Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum
With the run drawing to its close, I don’t think I’m giving anything away in revealing that the truly evil Peachum is the missus (a standout performance by Rita Fatania as Les Peachum’s domineering and scheming spouse). This Mrs Peachum has no need of Mr Peachum’s advice in the original; she knows it already:
But Money, Wife, is the true Fuller’s Earth for
Reputations, there is not a Spot or a Stain but what it can take out.
A rich Rogue now-a-days is fit Company for any Gentleman; and the
World, my Dear, hath not such a Contempt for Roguery as you imagine.
A lot of money changes hands – in suitcase-sized portions. Identical suitcases change hands, too: it’s a running gag throughout the show. There’s the one with the money, one with the mayor’s evidence that could ruin the Peachums – and the one with the dead dog (the unfortunate pooch was being taken for a walk by its owner, the mayor, when both were assassinated; ‘it was a witness’, remarks Macheath, the killer).
Suitcase mix-up: Patrycja Kujawska as the mayor’s widow
It’s hard to do justice in a few words to the energy and inventiveness of this production. Director Mike Shepherd has the tale unfold against the backdrop of a vast, scaffolded set across which characters clamber and leap. There is a Punch and Judy, there are hand puppets, choreographed dance numbers, atmospheric lighting effects, a lot of physically-demanding performance – and lots of music, a great deal of it performed by the actors themselves, most notably by Patrycja Kujawska on violin.
Music director Charles Hazlewood has retained the sense of Gay’s original which subverted the popular operatic tradition of its day by incorporating songs and tunes that were familiar to ordinary people. His ebullient score embraces rap, disco, ska and dub, with set pieces that reference – amongst many sources -Ian Dury, Madness and Tom Waits, as well as incorporating, as did John Gay, variants on ‘Greensleeves’ and airs by Handel and Purcell. The Polly Peachum wedding scene, in which the entire cast restage a Madness routine wearing long, black overcoats and pork pie hats, is priceless.
Madness: the cast with Carly Bawden as Polly Peachum
The acting is uniformly strong in this ensemble performance, though Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum and Dominic Marsh as Macheath deserve special mention. The whole thing works its way inexorably towards a truly stunning conclusion that brings home just how marvellous a box of tricks this theatre now has at its disposal. It’s an apocalyptic ending that must leave the Everyman staff with a lot of clearing up to do every night. If I have one criticism, though, it is that the show is too long and a little uneven. For example, there’s a scene towards the end where, with Macheath on the gallows awaiting execution, his two wives sing a song of devotion. It’s not a particularly good song, and the rest of the cast are left standing motionless, watching.
The production retains John Gay’s focus on ‘Gaming, Drinking and Whoring’. In the original, Macheath frequents a tavern where he is waited on by women of dubious virtue. In Dead Dog, writer and director have updated the concept with The Slammerkin, a nightclub staffed by gyrating pole dancers and transsexuals. There’s a hilarious scene (perhaps to be avoided by those of a nervous disposition who are uneasy around babies) in which the many babies fathered by Macheath surround him, bawling and crawling with menace.
Dead Dog: Kneehigh/Everyman publicity
John Gay achieved his greatest success with The Beggar’s Opera which had its debut in London in 1728 and became an immediate success, performed more than any other play during the 18th century. Alexander Pope wrote of the play that its ‘vast success was unprecedented and almost incredible’. It was popular, not just in London, but in all the major towns of Britain, and as far afield as Jamaica.
The play’s popularity was due in part to its satiric subversion of Italian opera, the passionate interest of the upper classes at the time – but mainly, perhaps, to the manner in which it lampooned politicians and commented excoriatingly on social inequity, primarily through Gay’s comparison of low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic superiors: ‘There is such a similitude of manners in high and low life that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen’.
Gay was not alone in making the comparison, as Vic Gatrell observes in City of Laughter, his superb history of sexual attitudes and satire in 18th century London which I read recently. At around the same time as Gay’s play was being premiered, Henry Fielding wrote:
Great whores in coaches gang,
For their kisses,
Are in Bridewell hang’d;
Whilst in vogue
Lives the great rogue,
Small rogues are by dozens hang’d
While Daniel Defoe observed caustically, ‘How many honest gentlemen have we in England, of good estates and noble circumstances, that would be highway men, and come to the gallows, if they were poor?
The theatre programme features a number of pertinent quotations along the same lines, including this one from Aesop some 2500 years ago (confirming that nothing is new under the sun):
We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.
While to Eddie Vedder is attributed the observation:
Give a man a gun, he’ll rob a bank. Give a man a bank, he’ll rob the world.
Threepenny Opera: original German poster from Berlin, 1928
In 1928, on the 200th anniversary of the original production of Gay’s play, The Threepenny Opera, a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht (who wrote the words) and Kurt Weill (who devised the music) updated the story for the Depression years. By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany by Hitler’s policies, the play had been translated into 18 languages and performedacross Europe. Songs from The Threepenny Opera have become standards, most notably, of course, ‘Mack the Knife’. It is absent, however, from Dead Dog in a Suitcase.