The Coronation of Poppea, King’s Head, Islington

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The Independent Culture

As London’s first pub theatre, the King’s Head has always punched above its weight: I lost count of the major writing talents which emerged there during the Seventies and Eighties, and the transfers to the West End. After its only begetter Dan Crawford died in 2005, the down-home, ramshackle honesty with which he infused it seemed doomed to extinction too.

Last week I was lured back by curiosity: how could Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacci’ work in this irregular little shoebox? In Anna Gregory’s lustily physical production for OperaUpClose, remarkably well. The seats are now sensibly raked, and though the stage remains the size of an average kitchen, the exits to the bar are so inventively used – not to mention the bar itself, and the street outside – that one has no sense of constriction.

Now comes a new version of Monteverdi’s ‘The Coronation of Poppea’ by Mark Ravenhill and Alex Silverman. In one sense it’s perfectly appropriate that this sex-fuelled drama should get a makeover from the author of ‘Shopping and Fucking’, though when the first sung words are ‘What the fuck?’, one fears Ravenhill may be conforming too faithfully to type. But while the new libretto reveals itself to be serviceable, if colourless, one realises that music-director Silverman is the man to watch, since he’s rearranged Monteverdi’s music for a neat little combo of soprano sax, piano, and bass. Inconceivable?

With a cast of opera-singers led by soprano Zoe Bonner in the title role, not at all. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, because, by and large, Silverman preserves the harmonic framework of the original, and this is so strong - and so inherently beautiful - that it can take any amount of jazz embroidery. Bonner’s refined artistry is matched by that of Rebecca Caine as Ottavia, Jessica Walker as Nero, and Martin Nelson, whose resonant voice and presence (as the obediently self-destroying Seneca) casts a circumambient glow.

But Ravenhill is also the director, and though the first half bowls convincingly along, the second gets side-tracked by the cross-dressing games he clumsily imposes on it; two modern musical interpolations – one by Michael Nyman – also muddy the water. With a little rethinking, however, this show could take wing.