Composer Charles Hazlewood on the challenges of reworking the Beggar’s Opera - by Catherine Jones, The Liverpool Echo
They say beggars can’t be choosers. But, if that’s really the case, then no one has thought to appraise Charles Hazlewood of the fact.
Because the conductor, composer and award-winning broadcaster is doing exactly that.
He’s taken the parts of John Gay’s celebrated and scabrous The Beggar’s Opera that still work, almost 300 years after it was written, and is marrying them with an up-to-date score to create a new version – Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) – being premiered at the Everyman this month.
The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 is “eye-gogglingly fabulous” and “utterly compelling” says the 47-year-old.
But. And there is a but.
“In reality, as Gay left it, it doesn’t work for today’s audience, for two principal reasons,” he explains. “The characters are two-dimensional; they’re all self-serving, mean-spirited, bitter and foul.
“Call me old-fashioned, but for storytelling to work you need to have at least one character you care about.
"And the other fundamental problem is that all those 80-90 folk tunes (in the original) have now evaporated from our culture, have lost their teeth. They don’t have the fire and the spike and the poke.”
Charles and his collaborators at Kneehigh, including writer Carl Grose, are relishing the challenge of injecting some modern-day “fire and poke”.
The Beggar’s Opera was a satirical masterpiece in its day, taking high art in the form of opera and lampooning it by setting it among the thieves and prostitutes of Newgate prison.
“It’s all about exposing the essential problem at the heart of society and life,” says Charles, “which is that rich people are every bit as corrupt as poor people, but because they’re rich they find a way of getting away with it.”
A point that remains pertinent today.
“This isn’t just diverting entertainment,” he adds. “This is stuff that makes you think, but in a wonderful, heart-warming and passionate way.”
As such, the Everyman, he believes, is the perfect place to premiere the re-working.
“I can’t think of another theatre better suited to berthing this very dark, very satirical but ultimately very important piece of work.”
The collaborative nature of his style of working means he’s been spending a lot of time in the city where he last worked eight years ago with the RLPO.
And it appears Liverpool will be seeing a lot more of him, with plans for another project in 2014 – this time a collaboration between the Phil and the British Paraorchestra Charles founded two years ago, in a performance for DaDaFest.
“I love Liverpool,” he enthuses. “I find there’s a fierce pride, but it’s not overbearing.”
Fierce pride might equally be attributed to Charles and his enthusiasm for his many projects, from BBC radio shows to his South African theatre company, annual “Orchestrival” at home in Somerset, and his imminent appearance at this year’s Glastonbury.
“I’ve got a supergroup,” he grins. “It’s an amazing 14-piece of the most jaw-dropping, talented musicians it’s possible to imagine.”
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) is at the Everyman from June 21 to July 12.