Mel Cooper interviews the playwright who is also the Associate director of the Kneehigh Theatre Company.
Carl Grose is the Associate Director of the theatre company Kneehigh, which in my experience over the years has produced some of the most original, memorable and innovative theatre that I have ever enjoyed. They got going about thirty years ago and are based in Cornwall, where you can sometimes see them performing on a beach. Their approach is simple: they tell stories.
The playwright Carl Grose saw them as a very young man and it was without a doubt, he told me, that Kneehigh, that troupe and their approach, inspired him to become a theatre practitioner himself. He has written for them in that past; and now he is writing and working for them as their Deputy Artistic Director. His excitement about and commitment to Kneehigh are almost palpable when you speak with him about his work. He can be downright inspiring about them.
His latest project is a rewrite and upgrade of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, the big hit in London in 1727 and arguably one of the first musicals ever. When we spoke recently in Oxford, I asked him why he thought it was important to reassess The Beggar’s Opera just now and how he had come to think of doing it.
“I didn’t really think of it. Composer Charles Hazelwood brought the idea to Kneehigh,” he told me, giving credit where it is due. “He had done three or four versions of the John Gay piece previously and felt that he had never got it right before. He loves Kneehigh as a company and how we approach theatre and he said he felt that Kneehigh should do it because it would perfectly fit the company sensibility.”
Having worked on the show before, Hazelwood knew the original inside out. So he became the adviser and the guide for a new approach. “He knew it intimately musically,” Carl went on, “and he knew all its background and history. He was very enthusiastic about selling it to Kneehigh. Kneehigh looked at the idea, was interested; and then I was contacted. I knew very little about the original ballad opera but I knew what Brecht had done with it in The Threepenny Opera and that had always been one of my favourite shows. I loved the actual play text of the Brecht but also the way the music worked with it and enhanced and focused the story.”
Carl Grose told me at first he had looked at the original work by John Gay and that he had had some real problems with it, finding it charmless in lots of ways, very dated and very specific to 1727. It also seemed to him somewhat mean-minded. But he was inspired by the Brecht and by the way that Brecht adapted the play for his own time during the era when Naziism was on the rise and had made it relevant to his own time. Also he found something interesting in the characters even in the John Gay version. “There was something about them that chimed with me for showing where we are in the world today.”
The project began around 2012 and it took Grose two years to write. Initially this new show based on The Beggar’s Opera was performed in 2014. “It was about the anger we had at that time at the banks and the way they were exploding and the corporate conspiracies having the lid blown off them. Initially the show was mainly about uncontrolled greed in the world today.”
I asked Carl Grose if they were revisiting the show in the light of the current political climate, which is so frozen and difficult and potentially toxic.
“In a way, yes, I suppose so,” he said. “But I haven’t changed it too much. I guess, though, that it has become a little more resonant in the light of current global events and movements. The show is the gift that keeps on giving. The themes always seem to remain contemporary and relevant, whatever is going on; it reflects those things that just don’t seem to want to go away. It makes our show prescient, I feel.”
Given that Gay’s original show was a ballad opera that used contemporary hit ballads and that Brecht had collaborated on a totally original score with Kurt Weill (“Mack the Knife”, “Pirate Jenny” and all that!) I wondered how much of the music for this show reflected either of those approaches. “Well,” Carl Grose told me, “Charles Hazelwood has appropriated some things you will recognize. For instance, “Greensleeves”, and “Over the Hills and Far Away”, which is in the original Beggar’s Opera. Then I rewrote the lyrics as required. “Over the Hills” is still a love song between Macheath and Polly, for instance. But Charles deconstructed all the tunes in it. All the music is mash-ups and deconstructions, including using Handel and Purcell. But fifty percent of the music at least is original. We did explore taking popular tunes of our time to mimic Gay’s approach, but we found that that sounded weird or sounded cheesy and jokey, and that it was distracting, so we gave up on it. Charles was very interested in taking those contemporary tunes and putting new lyrics to them, but it just didn’t work and it was much more interesting to use familiar songs like “Greensleeves” and also tunes by Handel that were more or less contemporary with the original play. We feel it creates a kind of frisson for the audience that we were originally after. There just wasn’t the same impact with today’s tunes. And, of course, there would have been terrible copyright problems. Still, we have a very weird “Saturday Night Fever” type of song in it. I love what Charles has done. I love the collision and mishmash of the various musical styles we use in the show.”
Carl Grose told me he had been very influenced by Brecht in his underlying approach to this project. “There is as much of Brecht in this version of the story as there is of John Gay, if not more. Brecht’s Threepenny Opera has given me a lot of the theatrical and political underpinning for this version. Like Brecht, I just wanted to tell a really exciting theatrical story first and foremost. I didn’t want to date it or pin it down, so didn’t want to create a character who would seem to be “Macheath Farage” or some contemporary banker. I see my Macheath as the modern equivalent of a guy who gets away with murder. So in the end, as with any other play I write, I just try to explore the meat of a really exciting story, to tell the story directly while also filling the story with some relevant political resonances. And I wanted to create an interesting world for my story to inhabit. The play is specifically set in its own world and it was important to me that you get a feeling that this is a world on the edge, that the characters are all desperate, and all imbued with a keen sense of wanting to survive. Macheath is basically a contract killer and that is one of the first things to note. I didn’t want to follow John Gay’s plot or adapt it slavishly. So I invented and added a whole other strand about a good politician, a man called Goodman, who is assassinated at the start of the show and his dog gets killed as well. I like morality tales and this is a morality tale and we’ve put more tussling with morality into our play than John Gay ever did in The Beggar’s Opera.”
“Just as Brecht and Weill did in their version?” I suggested.
“Of course!” he agreed. “I also want the audience to sense that Macheath is not completely lost. I want audiences not to hate him. I want the audience to remain ambiguous at the end of the evening about whether to hate or pity him. He happens to kill, but he is really more of a trickster. Then we had the idea of Punch and Judy being in the show, suggesting a satirical knockabout and seaside entertainment approach.”
I asked him if this revival was having the same kind of audience reactions as before.
“It really feels like a show that’s unique, that nothing else is quite like it. The audience reaction? Some love it and some loathe it. It isn’t neutral. I think it’s a rich, extraordinary mix of storytelling and music and visuals. It should entertain you and make you think too. In the end, the experience should be like a catchy punk song! The title sounds like an old record, a collection of songs that we sing to you at the end of the world. The rise of the right is what the show is about inadvertently, and that becomes very clear at the end. I hope the show makes people think and gets them angry and on their feet as well.”
I saw Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) in Oxford and a good number of the audience got to its feet to applaud at the end. It is touring and it will play at the Lyric, Hammersmith in London for four weeks from 21 May 2019 as part of that tour. Then it travels to places like Bristol and Exeter. It will finish up at the Galway Festival on 20 July 2019.
See Mel’s review of Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) below: