Sunday, 8 January 2012

Beggar's Opera

Here's some more from the archive.  In 1993 we toured Germany with a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The tour was funded by the British Council and included  dates in Jena and Rostok in the recently re-unified East.  Our local paper, the Journal, asked us to keep a diary of the tour. Here's an extract:

Wednesday: En route to Rostock. We have crossed the old East-West border and are travelling along what used to be the "land corridor" to West Berlin. We are surprised how many concrete border fences and machine gun posts remain. Pass a huge convoy of army lorries. Museum pieces. With equipment like this we wonder how the "Reds" can ever have been a threat.

Thursday: Rostok in the ex-GDR. There's a thunder storm outside and the theatre is an ancient, dilapidated building with crumbling plaster on the walls and water pouring in through one of the light fittings. Yet it is equipped with a computerised lighting system.

Rostock Theatre with member of the cast wondering if he's in the right place

Rostock Theatre entrance
It's fascinating to see what happens when capitalism is poured onto an old and crumbling "Socialist" state. You sense a whole nation is trying to catch up by grabbing material things. The streets are blocked with BMW's, bought with interest-free loans, sitting nose to tail with the ubiquitous beige "Trabbies".
Our host used to be a scene painter for the theatre. Since reunification she has been forced to choose between retirement or redundancy. Her rent has gone up 10-fold and her flat is now owned by a West German. "We don't know where it will end," she told us. "We were promised everything by those in the West. Now millions of us have nothing."

A restored house in Rostok

The contrast between West and East in the early 90's was marked.  Cities like Jena and Rostock were huge building sites and the routes to them were characterised by autobahns which quite literally ended where the old borders used to be, at which point they turned into pot-holed single lane roads. Another feature was that there were brand new car dealership showrooms and gleaming petrol stations on the outskirts of the villages and towns along the way.  These monuments to New Money all had one pump reserved for 2-stroke fuel for the "trabbies" that queued alongside the BMW's and the Mercs .
Following the heady days of re-unification, by the early 1990's, attitudes were quite polarised.  It was common to hear a lot about the sacrifices that those in the West felt they were making to accommodate the weak economy of the East and the effects that a "socialist" regime had had on creating a culture of dependency and a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. It was equally common, and a good deal more affecting, to hear those in the East talking about how all the physical and structural improvements taking place would create returns for the rich westerners who had money to invest.
It's 16 years since we toured in Germany.  We did it three times with an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey in 1991, the Beggar's opera in 1993 and finally with Dr Faustus in 1995.  We performed in Kiel, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Trier, Aachen, Hanover and Neuss in the west and in Jena and Rostock in the east. Socio-economic and cultural differences apart, a common thread was the unbridled enthusiasm for theatre (and English-speaking theatre at that). It was the best of times and we made many friends.
There are hundreds of independent, state and municipal theatres and opera houses in towns and cities throughout the country and theatre seemed to be more of a regular past-time for more of the population than in the UK. I remember there was some talk about this network of theatre and opera houses being under threat as the true cost of re-unification began to bite.
I would love to go back - Rostock had some of the ugliest suburbs we had ever seen and some of the most beautiful rococo architecture in the centre. Many building s looked like they were falling down with decay, and they stood right next to ones that had been perfectly restored.  The city was clearly going to look gorgeous, which would be especially nice for all the rich "incomers" who were going to live in it.
We would love to hear from anyone who has been more recently, particularly if you have performed there, or anywhere in Germany.
In the meantime, here are some photos of our production of John Gay's, The Beggar's opera, which we performed with 6 actors and a musician.
Macheath and the rivals for his affection, Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit

Polly in love

Lucy and Polly


The cast

Peachum, Macheath and Lockit

Peachum and Polly

Macheath, Matt of the Mint & the Gang

Macheath in prison


  1. Fascinating to hear about conditions in the former East Germany in the 90s. Intriguing that you received such a good reception presenting theater in English. Wonder what the reception would be like today?.

    1. We increased our chances by performing in university towns and by performing plays with strong cultural connections. However, what overwhelmed us was the enthusiasm with which we were greeted. I would like to say this was due to our fame and reputation - but this was not the case and indeed it is a greater testament to the theatre-going Germans that they flocked to our shows with no prior knowledge of us. And I do mean "flocked". We frequently sold out and in Jena (in the east) we arrived at the theatre to get set up only to find a queue of people waiting on the steps for the building to open to the public. Heady days!

  2. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.