Preview: The Beggar’s Opera

James Wilkes of Belt Up Theatre tells Matthew Badham why the company is all about audience participation

Hero image

Formed by four friends at the University of York in 2008, Belt Up Theatre has enjoyed much acclaim in its short lifespan. It’s won the Edinburgh International Festival Award for its production The Red Room and was involved in the TakeOver festival at York Theatre where people under 26 take control of the running of the theatre.

Now resident company at Theatre Royal, Belt Up is making its mark with a new version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a musical sometimes described as “anti-opera”. “It’s been great,” enthuses Belt Up’s co-artistic director James Wilkes. “We’ve had loads of opportunities, with every door that opens leading to another.”

In February Belt Up was showcased in The Observer as one of a group of innovative companies that are transforming what can be expected from theatre. Its performance style, which involves audience participation, seems to be turning heads.

“We always allow the audience a place in our shows,” says Alexander Wright, director of The Beggar’s Opera. “We’re very interested in the contract between them and the performer. In fact, ‘contract’ is a word that we use a lot. One of the first things we do in rehearsal is to decide what sort of relationship we want to set up with the people watching us.”

This participatory aspect to Belt Up’s work was established during its stage version of Metamorphosis (an adaptation of the classic Franz Kafka tale that sees travelling salesman Gregor Samsa transformed into a giant insect). In that production the audience were seated on the set, which depicted the Samsa family residence.

“Having placed the audience there alongside us in the Samsas’ home it somehow seemed wrong to ignore them,” says Wilkes. “So we invited them to get involved. That became a staple part of what we do. So we might give audience members a bit of script and ask them to read it out, or get them to dance or sing, or even invite them to get up on stage and strip. And a lot of them have really gone for it and thrown themselves into our shows with an amazing amount of gusto.”

When it comes to the participatory nature of The Beggar’s Opera, however, Belt Up’s members are playing their cards close to their chest for fear of spoilers.

“The conceit of this new adaptation is that it’s a group of politically active drama students from the 1980s doing their version of the show,” says Wright. “However, the audience will definitely be ‘playing’ a 2011 audience and that’s all I’m really prepared to reveal.”

The only instructions on their blog are for the audience to bring as many friends and family as possible. And as the show is set during the 1980s, people are invited to dress as a famous celebrity or political figure from that era.

The original production of The Beggar’s Opera from 1728 was highly political, satirising corruption, injustice and poverty, with its narrative revolving around the exploits of several rather seedy characters operating on both sides of the law. Belt Up’s new version is also satirical, drawing parallels between the politics of the 18th century, the 1980s and 2011.

Wilkes says: “There are themes and issues from both the time of the first production and the 1980s that resonate today and we’ll be invoking them. The ghost of Thatcherism still lingers, and direct reference will be made to the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne. Plus, the piece tackles the perennial concerns people have about the role of government within society and how much responsibility it should or shouldn’t have.“

Wright adds: “And on the political front, I hope that the simple act of coming to see a company like ours will make people consider some of the possible consequences of all the cuts that are going on. Like the fact that without funding, institutions like York Theatre Royal and companies such as Belt Up might not even exist.”

The Beggar’s Opera, 24-26 March, York Theatre Royal.

Interact: Responses to Preview: The Beggar’s Opera

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.