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The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre, London): Review

threepenny opera Who's that sneaking around the corner? George Ikediashi (left) and Rory Kinnear (centre). Photograph: Courtesy of Richard H Smith.

Vulgar, vicious, and fucking filthy! The Threepenny Opera slashes with unapologetic zeal and intensity: a dirty phenomenal thing.

Captain Macheath is back in ol’ London town, and that can only mean trouble. Mr Peachum and his band of beggars are getting ready to fleece the denizens of the East End as the King’s coronation procession passes straight through it. But there’s a problem, his daughter, Polly, has only gone and married Captain Macheath aka Mack The Kinfe: the most infamous and wanted criminal in all of London. What lies will be told, libidos quenched, and betrayals committed in The Threepenny Opera?

threepenny opera

Who’s that sneaking around the corner? George Ikediashi (left) and Rory Kinnear (centre). Photograph: Courtesy of Richard H Smith.

Adaptation

Out of all the musicals Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill collaborated on, The Threepenny Opera is possible the most well known, mostly due to the countless jazz renditions of its opening song “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” done by myriad crooners such as Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, and even Robbie Williams. But The Threepenny Opera is far from some jaunty jazzy comedy; it’s a dark and vicious satire on modern morals and society. Adapted from John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht really steeled and defined what would become an entire style of theatre, “Brechtian”, for which he used to send-up and tear apart the establishment, societal structures, and even theatre itself.

However, it was written in 1928 and originally in German. So what can an 88 year old piece of satire say about modern society and morality? Well, quite a lot actually. Brecht’s blistering swipe at morality is surprisingly timeless: it’s still razor-sharp, difficult, and damning. You could argue that, because of this, it doesn’t really need an updated version, and in many ways you’d be correct. But a new one couldn’t hurt, right?

Simon Stephens new version and translation doesn’t hurt at all, and more so, Stephens modern twists and updates on the original bring The Threepenny Opera right up to the Zeitgeist, making Brecht’s poison darts sink deep into the flesh of modern countenance. The rejigging of The Threepenny Opera makes it feel less distant and gives the audience an easier time of becoming familiar with Brecht and Weill’s underworld. The language is shockingly vulgar, so Daily Mail readers should avoid at all costs as there are more “fuckers”, “cunts”, and “bastards” than parliament, adding not only a cheeky sense of comedy but a sneering grump and unfettered sense of dirty indignation.

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Peachy. Rosalie Craig (centre) as Polly Peachum in ‘The Threepenny Opera’. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard H Smith.

Most notably in Stephens’ version is some significant changing to the songs compared to more well known versions/translations, and thus the angle of the scenes. “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” strays very far from the original with almost all new verses. Likewise “Army Song” is turned from a hoorah of excess and twisted hedonism (‘lets all go barmy/live off the army’) to a sinister and intense song about the horrors of war that Macheath and Tiger Brown faced together, cementing their seemingly unbreakable camaraderie. But overall, nothing about Brecht’s unapologetic zeal is diminished or taken away. On the contrary, Stephens new reconfiguration actually makes them more dynamic and easy to connect with. Gone are antiquated turns of phrase and distant references, and in their place a fresh, fizzing, and contemporary morality and wit.

Music

Weill’s music for The Threepenny Opera really helped define what most would consider the sparse and spiky jazz of Weimar cabaret. Weill’s influence and hallmark style can still be seen today, especially in the work of film composer Danny Elfman. What makes Weill’s music and songs so catchy is the fact that they’re just that little bit unhinged. There’s the odd jazz syncopated rhythms, and timbres and paces that switch unexpectedly. Not to mention the affectionate piss-taking pastiches of many genres from the field of classical music. Although a bit weird, especially with Weill’s oddball skeletal orchestrations, Weill’s songs remains incredibly infectious. Weill’s score for The Threepenny Opera ranges from kooky and crazed to the spookily sweeping, adding to the overall hyperactive and neurotic satire of Brecht’s intent, making it no wonder that The Threepenny Opera remains the pair’s best known and most performed collaboration.

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Johnny! Sharon Small as Jenny Diver in ‘The Threepenny Opera’. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard H Smith.

Direction & Production

Brecht is a bugger to review. As mentioned in the review of Lazurus Theatre’s fantastic Caucasian Chalk Circleyou can basically get away with doing what the hell you like because this is stylised theatre. The watershed, however, is to ensure you never go so overboard that you end up alienating your audience or muddying Brecht’s sardonic message. Rufus Norris has ensured that these two things don’t happen. The Threepenny Opera has all the standard hallmarks of a Brechtian production: band on stage (check), lighting and scenery rigs visible (check), and props with their names/descriptions written on them (check). But if there’s any criticism to be had is that Norris perhaps plays it too safe and The Threepenny Opera is not as batty or as bold as it could be. But you can’t complain too much at this because Norris still very knowing plays with Brechtian techniques to bring out a tongue-in-cheek irony, and by erring on the side of caution means that Norris can ensure that The Threepenny Opera is accessible to a wider audience whilst giving him room to play around with energy, intensity, and bring out The Threepenny Opera’s dark and dangerous laughs.

Directorially, Norris knows how to really wrack up the intensity of some of the scenes with bleakest humour and unfettered wit. There’s everything from bouncing body bags, collapsing scenery, dancing gangways, Valkyrie helmets, and more. There’s a constant steamrolling of energy and kitsch invention that turns The Threepenny Opera into a tornado of twisted fun; especially with Norris’ great use of height, the revolve, and the rest of the Olivier Theatre’s technical arsenal to create visually stunning moment after visually stunning moment. But that’s not to say that Norris doesn’t allow the production to take its time with some of the more haunting of Weill’s songs, giving the audience a pause not to catch their breath but to completely take it away. The only other criticism is Norris’ decision make the final scenes more dramatic and with a measured pathos, meaning The Threepenny Opera suddenly loses that bombastic irony that other productions bulldoze through right up to the hilt. But again, this doesn’t mortally maim the show, and Norris uses it to really ram home the fact that, despite The Threepenny Opera’s own protestations, this is a morality play, meaning the last-minute twist has all the more impact.

As for the rest of the show, it looks outrageously good. Viki Mortimer’s design goes for a 1920s Weimar/circus/silent film aesthetic that is beautifully eclectic, with a few wonderfully knowing inconsistencies thrown in such as a bit of 1970s Foxy Brown fashion for Lucy Brown’s character. Some of the myriad paper flats are painted are adorned with Rothko-esque designs, but it’s the fact that they’re paper means that people are constantly crashing through or tearing them up: it’s a set of constant destruction. Paule Constable’s lighting design also brings to life the entire show with reds, whites, and some great uses of shadows and darkness. The there’s Imogen Knight’s bristling choreography that adds further visual sass and sumptuousness. The result is a Weimar-vellous nightmare carousel of verve and vulgarity.

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Moon over Soho. Hadyn Gwynne (left) and Nick Holder (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Richard H Smith.

Cast

The casting for The Threepenny Opera is spot-on and is a triumph of its dedication to bringing diversity to the stage. Notable inclusions in The Threepenny Opera are George Ikediashi, better known as silky-voiced drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat, who brings cabaret fabulousness and exuberance to his characters and lends his trademark tremendous voice to the cast. Then, Jamie Beddard is just fantastic as Matthias, who gets pretty much all of the best one liners and delivers them with spot-on comic timing (I really hope the National Theatre let Beddard keep the fantastically Steampunk pimped-out electric wheelchair).

The Threepenny Opera’s leads could not have been better cast. From Jenny Diver to Lucy Brown to Tiger Brown to Mr Peachum, each are just glorious on stage. If I had to pick three outstanding performances, however, it would have to be Rory Kinner as Macheath, Hadyn Gwynne as Mrs Peachum, and Rosalie Craig as Polly.

Gwynne is as viperous a vixen as you can get, looking absolutely stunning in her little red dress. She is momentously jeering and spiteful as one half of the villains of the piece. She constantly stumbles on with a crooked and jabbing vitriol that is simply delicious. Gwynne’s voice also soars and is full of bilious melancholy in all of her songs: 100% diva fierceness.

Kinnear is simply devilish as Macheath. He exudes a devil-may-care sensuality and caprice and is always a indomitable presence on stage that is intoxicating and seductive to watch. But there’s also a vainglorious wit that really comes through in Kinnear’s performance, making him sly, stoic, and commander of all he surveys: a captivating Macheath.

Craig at several times steals the show as Polly, completely owning the pragmatic steel of Polly’s character. But it’s her songs that are wholly incredible, especially in song’s like “Barbara Song” and “Pirate Jenny”, where her power and pristine voice and emotive captivation hook you without mercy. Craig haunts with a pathos, broken sincerity, and an underestimated brilliance that is unforgettable.

Verdict

Look out Jenny Diver and ol’ Lucy Brown, Mack is most definitely back in this scintillating, stunning, and scandalous new version of The Threepenny Opera.

The Threepenny Opera plays at the National Theatre, London, SE1 9PX, on various dates until 1 October 2016. Tickets are £15 – £50. To book, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
This review was made possible by Theatre Bloggers. For more information about the group, please visit theatrebloggers.co.uk.