The Beggar's Opera: Sheridan Morley on the Highs and Lows of Trailer-Trash Exhibitionism and French Existentialism. (Theatre)

Article excerpt

Evenings don't come much weirder than this. Those theatregoers who were hoping that the first National Theatre production under the new management of Nicholas Hytner would tell us what else to expect from him are in for a shock. Jerry Springer: the opera does not belong on the Lyttelton stage of the National, or indeed anywhere like it.

This comic opera is not new. It has been around for more than a year, and although this version for the National is heavily recast and has had a lot of money thrown at it, in some curious way it remains a work in progress. I rather wish I had caught it when it was only a song cycle; I do however understand its attraction for Hytner. Had he opened with one of his own productions--a Chekhov or a Shakespeare, for instance--there would have been an unbearable critical expectation. By airlifting in this bizarre hybrid he has bought himself some time.

Jerry Springer: the opera comes from nowhere and gets us nowhere. Yes, you could cite The Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors as the origins of this alternative/anti-musical line or, if you were feeling more generous, you could call it a modern StreetScene, which was, in Kurt Weill's time, a vastly more satisfying and successful attempt to drag grand opera into contemporary life.

Anyone who admits to watching his television show will know that Jerry Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati (who once admitted in court to paying a prostitute with a personal cheque), is the founding father of cheap, confrontational television. Watching his show is like watching a train crash: misfits, lunatics and trailer trash slug out their real or imaginary dilemmas in public in return for 15 minutes of fame on television.

And this opera-musical-extravaganza (music by Richard Thomas; book and lyrics by Thomas and the director, Stewart Lee) is a creepily accurate reconstruction of the television show in all its gothic horror. But there are, in fact, two separate shows here. In the first half we get a parade of the fat, the desperate and the angry, who denounce each other in a bloodbath of human life gone wrong. After the interval, the writers suddenly acquire Shavian delusions. Jerry is shot by mistake during a tap-dance by the entire Ku Klux Klan (don't ask) and like Shaw's Don Juan, he descends into hell to referee a debate between Jesus and Satan which has as additional guests a bickering Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary (complaining that Jesus wasn't around to attend to her in her old age) and God, whining about how tough it is being him--in a lovely Irish tenor. …