The 18th-century founder of modern capitalism was Adam Smith, not the Marquis de Sade.
You might be forgiven for getting confused after seeing Bruce “Clybourne Park” Norris’s new Hogarthian satire at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
Jim Trumpett, the energetic anti-hero of “The Low Road,” is a young merchant on the make in colonial America.
He praises the works of Smith and believes that self-interest is a divinely ordained “invisible hand.”
Trumpett is also a pimp, liar, thief, patricide, swindler, murderer, and slave owner. Like de Sade, he takes his own self-interest to philosophical heights of coldness.
There’s a short fast-forward to a modern conference at Davos. The anti-hero’s descendant, Richard Trumpett of TrumpettBank Global LLC, is on the panel. He groans and shivers when he hears the word “regulation.”
“If you really want to make the world a better place, first thing you gotta do is help yourself,” he says.
The satire is heavily underlined, and anti-free-market fingers are jabbed moralistically.
What gives it its zip is the author’s obvious pleasure in pastiching 18th-century language (the story is a hybrid of “The Beggar’s Opera,” “The Rake’s Progress” and “Tom Jones”).
Johnny Flynn hits the right note of swagger and dissociation as Trumpett, and Elizabeth Berrington is amusing as both his brothel-keeping mother and his wealthy patron’s wife.
Director Dominic Cooke picks up the slack, and keeps the pace energetic and the jokes lively.
The production is his farewell show as the Royal Court’s artistic director before Vicky Featherstone takes over later this month. If “The Low Road” is no masterwork, it’s not a bad way to bow out. Rating: ***.
Verdi’s “Nabucco,” about a king who tries to destroy the Jews, is not quite a masterpiece either, even if it has one of his most famous tunes in the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
It also offers some good opportunities to a baritone who can hold a stage with authority, and a soprano who can pump out fast scales and meaty top Cs while looking haughty.
It gets both of those at the Royal Opera in the persons of Leo Nucci (Placido Domingo takes over later in the run) and Liudmyla Monastyrska as his power-hungry daughter Abigaille.
It also gets just about the most cack-handed director Covent Garden has seen in recent times in the form of Daniele Abbado, son of conductor Claudio Abbado.
He sets the piece among dull gray monolithic slabs, and dresses the chorus in drab gray 1940s clothes. How you’re meant to tell when they’re being Jews (goodies) or Babylonians (baddies), heaven only knows. Since they stand stock still in long lines for a lot of the opera, it doesn’t matter much.
Dead victims of oppression get up and walk away; video projections wobble; the chorus runs in a circle when Nabucco appears; and on it goes, a catalog of directorial horrors.
It’s so bad, it makes the fine conducting of Nicola Luisotti, and some good singing, feel an utter waste. Rating: *.
“The Low Road” is at the Royal Court Theatre. http://www.royalcourttheatre.com or +44-20-7565-5000
“Nabucco” is in repertory at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars) Worthless
Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine, Jeremy Gerard on New York theater and Jeffrey Burke on books.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)