Monday, 11 July 2011

The Beggar's Opera At Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Sorry I haven't been much in evidence.  Lots going on, as sometimes happens.  This week should be a lot quieter! 

I had several outings, and one of them was to see The Beggar's Opera at Regents Park Open Air Theatre - something I've wanted to do for ages.  Here's a scene from it, above, with Macheath the highwayman in the foreground. (Macheath is the original glamorous bad boy  charming, lying, stealing, womanising and escaping the gallows at the end.)

I wanted to go for two reasons. First, we last went to the open air theatre so long ago that I've forgotten it. 

Second, I've always wanted to see a live performance of the outrageous, Hogarthian "Beggar's Opera", written by John Gay in 1728. Strictly speaking, a "ballad opera," it tells of the shocking deeds of thieves, fences, whores, murderers and gaolers in 18th century London. The music uses folksongs of the time, and there is none of the more high-flown music you get in traditional operas.

 Regents Park Open Air Theatre started in a small way in 1932, and its purpose built auditorium opened in the 1970s.   It's in the centre of the park, in the middle of the gardens. And I should add that, when in London, in summer, it's really worth taking a walk in Regent's Park, because there are so many marvellous garden areas there, in contrasting styles.

We spotted this heron.

And we continued on past wonderful rose beds containing literally thousands of roses of different colours and varieties.

This variety is called "English Miss," and has light pink outer petals and darker inner petals. 

It was good to see so many groups of people out enjoying the rose gardens - you can spot some of them in the distance in the photo below. The little pointed roofs you can see in the distance are part of the cafe.

I took so many pictures of the roses, (far too many to put here.) 

But eventually, we spotted the sign directing us to the theatre entrance.

Once inside,it's pretty. You enter to the back of the auditorium, draped with vines and hung with fairy lights in a bar, cafe and shop area.  It's quite impressive, because it is set in a dip, with trees encircling the building. 

In the photo below, you can glimpse a picnic lawn on the left,  We're lucky that we don't live far from the theatre, and so we ate at home. If we ever go in the future with friends, though, and the weather forecast is reliable, we'll take a picnic - though actually we would eat in the park outside because of all the wonderful flowers.

But if you are on the picnic lawn, at least you don't miss the start of the performance. A staff member walks along ringing a hand-bell.

Here's the view from our seats, which were among cheaper ones at the back - we could see and hear very well, though and they were still pretty expensive. 

The backdrop at the front showed Hogarthian scenes. If you look closely at the image below, you can see Mr. Peachum, the "fence" and thief-catcher, sitting on a stepladder in the middle.   In this production, he was played very well, with great "presence" by Jasper Britton.

The sets were highly ingenious, and could be easily adapted to suit the teeming action on the stage. Below, the low-life are dancing and boozing, while a couple of ruffians traipse round and round the central pillar in a yoke, and another is flattened beneath a heavy stone, lying on the floor. To the left is a wagon containing a gigantic bed, within which are concealed many of the actors, waitng to leap out at an appropriate point in the story.

  The musicians are in a little shack on the right.

I was slightly concerned to see that some young people had been brought to the performance - it was always intended to be vulgar, and this production is very vulgar; more explicit than I'd want to take my kids to. (The group had disappeared by the second half, so maybe their teacher thought this too)

From reviews of the production, it seems that some people who attend can't really understand the early 18th century language that is used.   It's not as difficult as Shakespeare, but it's worth reading either the script or at least the plot beforehand.  Here's a Youtube link to Macheath's song , which he sings in the condemned cell, waiting to be hung. He is bitter because he believes (correctly) that if you are rich, you can buy your way out of trouble.  You may recognise the tune as "Greensleeves" originally written by Henry VIII but still popular over a hundred years later when Gay wrote "The Beggar's Opera"

Macheath's Song.

And here are the words, with some explanations . 

Since laws were made for every degree ["degree" means "rank of society" ]
to curb vice in others as well as me [to control others, not just me,]
I wonder we hadn't better company  [[I wonder why we don't have grander company]
Upon Tyburn tree [Tyburn tree was the most famous tree upon which villains were hanged - Tyburn is at the top of present day Oxford St.]

But gold from law can take out the sting  [money renders the law ineffective]
And if rich men like us were to swing [swing on the gallows]
'Twould thin out the land [it would thin out the population] such numbers to string [to hang so many]
Upon Tyburn tree.

If you're interested so far, you might like to watch part of  the BBC programme made about re-imagining The Beggar's Opera. And of the recordings I know, I recommend  this one, made in 1983,  directed by the always-interesting polymath Jonathan Miller, with Roger Daltrey (of The Who) as an unlikely, but very good Macheath.  And this is a clip from the all star movie with music arranged by Arthur Bliss - you'll spot Kenneth Williams there, and Olivier and Stanley Holloway were also in the cast. 

I wish I had more photos of the Regents Park production.  I was told in no uncertain terms by one of the staff to put my camera away, though!   But when we came out it was dark, and the picnic lawn was lit up by fairy lights, and I took a few more snaps as we left.

Below, you can probably spot people exiting on the left.

Unusually for London, we were able to park right outside.  OK, we could have walked or cycled, but actually, the threatened rain began to fall just at that moment, so we were very glad we  had brought the car! 


  1. What a wonderful outing. I'm not usually an opera fan but this is one I'd like to see. Thanks for the lyrics and the esplainations.


  2. I am completley captivated! This looks like it was a magical night. The Opera looks so interesting and the roses...well...they are stunning!

  3. Especially that one rose looks so creamy, wonderful! If their scent is as strong as their looks, it must be quite overwhelming walking there.

  4. outdoors theater is just so amazing! love it : )

  5. i think i've seen video of a young mark heap performing at this theatre.

  6. I am fond of wildish, overblown roses. My cat likes to eat them.

  7. Outdoor theater. How cool!

    Must be quite interesting to see & watch them. :)

  8. You had a very nice evening, and were lucky that you had not rain until the theatre was over.The name "The Beggar's Opera" is interesting, though I'm not familiar with open theatre.

  9. Jenny Woolf,
    Oh, it’s a very interesting and unique opera. The main character is bad and it seems that no good people appears in the opera. This time also your post made me want to see ths opera very much. I guess your sentiment toward an opera is similar with my sentiment toward Kabuki play.
    Last December I went to see a Noh play at an open air stage. It was amazing everything surrounding the stage became the effective stage settings; sky, sun light, clouds, wind, even cawing crows and roaming deer. I thought it is the best part of the open air theater.
    I do love all your photos and words. Thanks a lot for sharing such a very attractive post. Have a great day!

  10. I love open air theatre. First time my parents took me to a production of The Desert Song at Scarborough. We were totally unprepared (not a coat or jacket between us) and were frozen in our "watch out for low flying aircarft" seats by the end of the night! We have tickets for Much Ado next month, being performed in the grounds of our local Carthusian priory. Can't wait.

  11. So long since I have been to Regents park so enjoyed this a lot.


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