Kneehigh’s reputation precedes them: we know before the show begins that we are in for an energetic, multi-disciplined, high-octane experience, and are well-prepared to be dazzled by what we see.
We’re not disappointed. With Dead Dog in a Suitcase, Kneehigh have successfully reinterpreted The Beggar’s Opera, restoring its original status as an anarchic polemic, using theatre as a means to rage against the machine, revelling in – as well as reviling – the writhing underbelly of our messed-up world.
There’s a veritable roll-call of notorious baddies: a corrupt politician, a ruthless businessman, a manipulative wastrel, a charming gangster. They’re all here, gloriously exaggerated and strutting their stuff. There’s a whole host of victims too, and they’re just as vociferous as the scum in charge. This is, as you might expect, as much a celebration of the underclass, as a vilification of those who oppress. It’s a radical reworking, but its roots in John Gay’s “low-born mucky people doing low-born mucky things to each other” original are clear for all to see.
And it’s relentless: at times, there is so much happening on stage that I don’t know where to look. This is disorienting, yes, but it’s also oddly exciting, and I spend the whole performance sitting forward in my seat, determined not to miss a thing.
In a show with this much going on, it’s hard to single out particular ideas, but the puppet show is certainly worth a mention, especially the cradle full of illegitimate babies. The meta-theatrical linking of Punch with Macheath underlines the heartless, senseless nature of the crimes Macheath commits. The scenes in the strip-club, The Slammerkin, have a similar effect, with grotesque, dilated bodies revealing the nasty truth about the venal punters who go there. It’s a frantic, furious and fabulous ensemble piece, and the story builds and builds until it’s almost unbearable.
And the music! Oh. It’s so riotous and infectious that it’s impossible not to get involved. It assaults and envelops the audience, encompassing a whole range of styles and working in an almost primal way. The violin, played by Patrycja Kujawska, is breathtaking in itself, and the cataclysmic, all-stops-out ending leaves me genuinely awe-struck.
If there’a quibble it’s a minor one: this play is actually quite exhausting to watch. A little tightening here and there to bring down the running time, would benefit both players and audience, I think.
But this is a mesmerising slice of theatre, and definitely one that you should catch before it heads off on tour.