The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
The previous weekend, my daughter was away on a school art trip, so as an antidote to the referendum shock I looked for something to go and see at the theatre. The National Theatre’s new production of The Threepenny Opera was just the ticket – I found an odd seat at the Saturday matinee (cheaper than the evening) and headed off to London.
Brecht based his play with music, which opened in Berlin in 1928, on Elizabeth Hauptmann’s translation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera written in 1728. Having seen the RSC’s 1992 production of the Beggar’s Opera, I could remember the basic plot, but few details of that production – except Jenna Russell (who sang the Red Dwarf theme song) was Lucy Lockit, but checking back I find that Natalie Cassidy (Sonya in Eastenders) was one of the children in the cast!
Brecht doesn’t change the plot much – a quick summary: London is getting ready for the coronation. Captain Macheath runs a gang of robbers, whereas Mr Peachum runs the beggars of London, and when he finds out that his daughter Polly has secretly married Macheath he is out to get him. Macheath is betrayed by one of his ex-lovers, the whore Jenny Diver and ends up in Newgate where Lucy, the daughter of the Chief of police (another ex-lover) helps him escape, but he’s caught again and sentenced to hang. However, he’s reprieved at the last moment by the Queen (or King in this version) – giving the audience the happy, if not moral, ending they require.
The NT’s new production is a new adaptation (rather than straight translation) by Simon Stephens, and the language is contemporary and completely vulgar! We had been warned, but I could hear some of the matinee audience tut when the “filthy language and immoral behaviour” happened, but it was also hilarious.
We were in the NT’s Olivier theatre with its revolving stage, no curtains. The stage was bare apart from some ladder steps and some cut-out panels covered with paper. The balladeer strolled on, the music started and he sang “Mack the Knife” as, behind him, the cast enacted some of Macheath’s dastardly deeds. Macheath goes among them robbing and knifing them and their guts spilled out as skeins of red cord!
Rory Kinnear is not the obvious choice for Macheath – he doesn’t have the physical presence or charisma you might expect (previous Macheaths in London have included Tim Curry for instance), yet you could sense his inner psychopath – just like Tony Soprano. In his spiv’s sharp suit, with internal pocket for his big knife, he was suitably sinister if not quite one of the Krays. He can also sing.
The Peachums, Mr, Mrs and Polly were all fabulous. Nick Holder’s Mr Peachum was a larger than life, slightly camp and very nasty villain who wears a frilly apron and heels. His wife played by Haydn Gwynne meanwhile slinked around in a skintight red dress – and the first we saw of her, she was coming home drunk. It was made clear that Macheath fell in love with Polly’s accountant brain rather than her looks – and Rosalie Craig was fiercely efficient as Macheath’s gang-mother!
The other female characters were also excellent – Scottish actress Sharon Small was a Glaswegian Jenny Diver and Debbie Kurup was a sparky Lucy. They brought all their musical numbers to life – and the “Jealousy Duet” between Lucy and Polly was fantastic.
The music was played by an on-stage band of eight musicians who were absolutely brilliant, often strolling through the action, and the singing was uniformly excellent. Most of the rest of the company played multiple roles – a beggar or whore here, a Keystone cop type policeman there, and they moved all the panels around very slickly to change the layout. At one point, there was a big scene change, and one of the cast shouted out “Scene change” as the Olivier’s revolving stage brought up a new set of steps and panels from beneath! With no curtain, it was Haydn Gwynne who shouted out “Interval” to signify half-time.
I loved the show within a show style of this production. It was made to appear cobbled together as if it really only cost threepence to put on, but of course it was precision-choreographed. It had the slickness and jazz feel of Chicago, the underlying seediness of the late Weimar Republic in Cabaret, combined with the melancholy backstreet swagger of a character from a Tom Waits song.
There was one really funny moment at the start of the second half. The lights went down, Kinnear strolled to the front of the stage and said something like: “You still ‘ere then? You could’ve left – but you chose to – remain.” – how we loved that anti-Brexit jibe!
The reviews of this production have said that it lacks menace, but as a piece of musical theatre it’s rather good. Well, I thoroughly enjoyed it on all levels – highly recommended (if you can take the language).
The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre in London, starring Rory Kinnear and directed by Rufus Norris, is in rep until Sept 1.