In Vaclav Havel's songless version of John Gay's anti-opera, there is no opera. Nor is the show aimed at 'beggars' (or the common people), but at intellectual dissident sympathisers. For Havel (lately President of the Czech Republic) was a severe critic of the harsh Soviet influence which followed the 1968 invasion of his homeland. After much privation during these years, he was resurrected as a hero when the Eastern bloc collapsed.
Unlike the Brecht/Weill 1928 spin on the same material (in The Threepenny Opera), which was a voluble in-yer-face critique on capitalism, Havel attacks the oppressive communist regime that entrapped him. In a way then, Havel's play is the antithesis of Brecht.
The usual suspects remain - Lockit (the corrupt police chief), Peacham (the traitorous crime boss) and Macheath (the amorous carpetbagger) - but, while thieves and villains they may all still be, here they represent different aspects of Havel's own life and times. Lockit (played by the redoubtable Bruce Alexander) is a manipulative party apparatchik, Peacham the informant who feathers his own nest, and Macheath (Howard Saddler in a lascivious wide boy performance) the freethinking dissident.
In a convoluted plotline which involves single, double and triple cross, these seedy characters of 18th-century London's demi-monde - along with Macheath's conquests, Lucy, Polly and Jenny - all conspire to put the knife in. Thus, says Havel, is idealism corrupted by betrayal, and independence of thought, by deceit.
In Geoffrey Beevers' fast-paced production of this 1970's piece of agitprop, a large cast perform with conviction and ability. The writing, in a translation by Paul Wilson, is eloquent although some of the key ideological speeches are less drama than declamatory political rhetoric.
Hedonistic capitalism doesn't escape the author's gaze either. The bordello run by Diana (Vivien Heilbron) is marketed on the basis that the available selection of female flesh is, in fact, consumer choice. Macheath may be a dissident, but his amoral lifestyle certainly receives no approbation at Havel's hand. If there's a hero in this version of the play, it's Tim Treloar's Filch, a freelance pickpocket who prefers the gallows rather than 'trafficking with the enemy' (the police) or 'ratting' on a colleague. In other words, a martyr.
But is this a play for our times or just a dusty reminder of the recent past? Macheath is finally caught and turned by the all-powerful System. Perhaps we only have to look at our daily newspapers to see that, whatever the System, communism or our so-called democracy, some things never change. A worthwhile evening all round.