Peeping Toms and Jerry

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Review of 'Jerry Springer: The Opera', director Stewart Lee, National Theatre, London

Jerry Springer: The Opera' is a highly original and exhilarating show that is both a satire on the successful US TV show and a serious modern opera. In the TV show, conflictual couples are invited by Springer to air their disputes in public and to submit to criticism or mediation by him and members of the studio audience. The results are orgies of brash self revelation in which the participants expose their innermost secrets to a gawping and at times mocking but invariably fascinated national audience.

We are treated to displays of public intimacy more appropriate to group therapy than prime-time TV. It seems that it wasn't too hard for unscrupulous business operators to sniff out the commercial mileage in extending the process of self revelation from ten people to ten million. The show highlights the fact that there is no place where capitalism's writ does not run - it commodifies even our deepest anxiety and pain.

The opera brilliantly exposes the show's expression of our addiction to celebrity, amply fulfilling Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. It matters not that today anything goes; it can be because one is a two-timing bisexual or that one harbours a secret desire to be put in diapers and spanked by one's fiancée. The singers, playing the studio audience, heartily voice songs such as 'Three-Nipple Cousin-Fucker', 'My Mom Used To Be My Dad', or 'Chick With a Dick'. They complement their excellent singing with highly expressive body movements.

Writers such as Erich Fromm and Christopher Lasch have argued that every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology which articulate in exaggerated form its typical underlying character. The problem for individuals under late capitalism is not that of controlling their deepest strivings, as it was when Freud was writing. Today, the problem is the fear of a lack of inner substance, the anxiety that there may not be anything there to control. This creates a profound and terrifying sense of emptiness in the minds of the individuals who make up contemporary western society. It gives rise to a compensatory mechanism, a desperate attempt to boost the self by projecting a set of images that reflect an alternative, more powerful and meaningful reality. 'Self presentation', the projection of attractive or compelling appearances, thus becomes the core reality of one's self, giving rise to narcissism, or raw individualism. The opera brilliantly captures this crucial aspect of western capitalist culture.

In act two, Jerry Springer goes to hell, where he is confronted by his studio audience and where he has to arbitrate between God, dynamically sung by Benjamin Lake, particularly in the song 'It Aint Easy Being Me', and Satan, a seductively vital performance by David Bedella. Jerry himself is played by Michael Brandon in the only non-singing role. He effectively portrays Springer's peculiar mix of blandness and moralism. Richard Thomas's music is both powerful and affecting and Stewart Lee's production is well paced and convincing. Lee and Thomas wrote the book and lyrics. A memorable evening.