Who would have thought an 18th-century comic opera, rooted in the political climate and musical tastes of its time, would still be going strong today, produced by a South African company whose cultural background is of another world?
Yet, in the hands of the same team that brought us The Mysteries, it works. The Beggar's Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, satirises the then prevailing fashion in Italian opera and the social conventions surrounding it. Narrated by the eponymous beggar, the story follows Highwayman Macheath (Siyabulela Bede) on his journey to near death at the hands of the all-powerful but villainous fence Peachum (Sandile Kamle), pausing for a few infidelities along the way. The thief Macheath is our hero and somehow, amongst all the corruption, the only man of honour.
Director Mark Dornford-May transplants The Beggar's Opera (Ibali looTsotsi) to a 'South African London' setting. This brings a wonderfully unique if ambiguous ingredient to bear on the text, which is reworked to include snippets of Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Zulu, while the original songs (such as "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "Greensleeves") remain.
Pitched perfectly, Dornford-May's production draws the audience into the melodramatic love triangle of Macheath, Peachum's daughter Polly, and the Jailor's daughter Lucy, whilst all the while retaining a savvy self-awareness - prodding the audience now and again as a reminder that, actually, we're here to laugh at the whole ridiculous affair.
And there are some very funny moments, even if a few performances - most notably Sibusiso Ziqubu's Lockit - verge on the silly. Lockit is meant to be a laughable character, but Ziqubu's desperate 'Laugh at me!' approach left me feeling stripped of the freedom to make up my own mind.
Otherwise, the company are spectacular, boasting some truly powerful voices and bold harmonising (thankfully given full rein with nicely understated musical accompaniment, arranged by Charles Hazelwood). I'm sure I wasn't the only member of the audience to fall for the charming Macheath, sympathise with Polly's misguided affections or bow down to Peachum's awesome authority.
And it's almost impossible to envisage a space more suited to these proceedings than East London's Wilton's Music Hall, whose majestically crumbling interior and fine acoustics lend themselves beautifully to this Beggar's Opera. Taken altogether, it's hard to resist being cast under the Zulu spell here.