The beggar's opera

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on the highs and lows of trailer-trash exhibitionism and French existentia

Evenings don't come much weirder than this. Those theatregoers who were hoping that the first National Theatre production under the new management of Nicholas Hytner would tell us what else to expect from him are in for a shock. Jerry Springer: the opera does not belong on the Lyttelton stage of the National, or indeed anywhere like it.

This comic opera is not new. It has been around for more than a year, and although this version for the National is heavily recast and has had a lot of money thrown at it, in some curious way it remains a work in progress. I rather wish I had caught it when it was only a song cycle; I do however understand its attraction for Hytner. Had he opened with one of his own productions - a Chekhov or a Shakespeare, for instance - there would have been an unbearable critical expectation. By airlifting in this bizarre hybrid he has bought himself some time.

Jerry Springer: the opera comes from nowhere and gets us nowhere. Yes, you could cite The Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors as the origins of this alternative/anti-musical line or, if you were feeling more generous, you could call it a modern Street Scene, which was, in Kurt Weill's time, a vastly more satisfying and successful attempt to drag grand opera into contemporary life.

Anyone who admits to watching his television show will know that Jerry Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati (who once admitted in court to paying a prostitute with a personal cheque), is the founding father of cheap, confrontational television. Watching his show is like watching a train crash: misfits, lunatics and trailer trash slug out their real or imaginary dilemmas in public in return for 15 minutes of fame on television.

And this opera-musical-extravaganza (music by Richard Thomas; book and lyrics by Thomas and the director, Stewart Lee) is a creepily accurate reconstruction of the television show in all its gothic horror. But there are, in fact, two separate shows here. In the first half we get a parade of the fat, the desperate and the angry, who denounce each other in a bloodbath of human life gone wrong. After the interval, the writers suddenly acquire Shavian delusions. Jerry is shot by mistake during a tap-dance by the entire Ku Klux Klan (don't ask) and like Shaw's Don Juan, he descends into hell to referee a debate between Jesus and Satan which has as additional guests a bickering Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary (complaining that Jesus wasn't around to attend to her in her old age) and God, whining about how tough it is being him - in a lovely Irish tenor.

In all fairness, one should add that the cast consists of opera singers who can act, that Thomas's score is unusually melodic, that the singing is never less than competent, and that the libretto is stunning. Not that we are talking Stephen Sondheim here, or even Maltby and Shire: it stuns with the shock value of its humour, which relies on using the most sexually explicit words in our vocabularies - and quite a few which are not - sung operatically.

Jerry Springer himself can take consolation from the fact that he is the only chat-show host in the entire history of television to have become an actual opera. Pity about that cheque.

As a theatregoing nation, we have never been very good on the modern or existential French dramatists. We generally prefer playwrights from over the Channel to be either long dead (Moliere or Racine), or to be cutting-edge and very short (Yasmina Reza). But now here comes a rare revival of Albert Camus's Caligula, from the new Michael Grandage administration at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Camus is widely believed to have invented theatre of the absurd. His Caligula is more concerned with the dotty emperor's mental state than his habits of marrying his sister or elevating his horse to the status of consul.

In fact, Camus was not quite 23 when he wrote the first sketches for this play, in 1936, and deeply concerned with the effects of his own depression. Caligula shows that he was way ahead of most psychiatrists in understanding the nature of despair. It is also possible that, from the perspective of the late 1930s, Camus saw Hitler and Mussolini as equally deranged depressives, and intended his play to be some kind of dramatic warning.

In Michael Sheen, Grandage has found a star player of charisma who is able, through the sheer energy of his performance, to paper over the cracks in an always untidy and insecure script, albeit one that has been given a makeover by David Greig, its new translator.

Jerry Springer: the opera is booking at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) to the end of August

Caligula is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020 7369 1732) until 14 June

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