It says something when critics are confused. And looking at some of the reviews of the National Theatre’s new production of The Threepenny Opera, a number of the critics out there are very confused.
For instance, it had been cleansed of all politics, suggested one review – which, were it true, would make it the most bowdlerised piece of Brecht ever produced.
It is also patently untrue and begs the question of what any such reviewer thinks is politics – let alone whether they actually know anything at all about one of theatre’s most iconic writers.
Brecht himself voiced the opinion that the British did his work no favours, treating it too reverentially and making it po-faced rather than fun.
The Other Half – a serious Brechtophile and a half – and I have been fortunate enough to see a number of productions that suggest Brits have learned how to do Brecht.
These included the 2009 National Theatre production of Mother Courage, with Fiona Shaw in the lead and songs reworked and played live by Duke Special, so we were expecting great things on our return to the Olivier for his most famous work.
A new adaptation by Simon Stephens has made textural changes – for instance, to more strongly reference bankers, which illustrates just how much this production is very conscious of its political heart.
Rufus Norris has enjoyed a mixed reception to the start of his tenure as artistic director at the National.
In a online comment after the Guardian review, one wit noted dryly that, in the style of its famous reviewer, Michael Billington, Norris’s latest outing had been given a three-star rating, meaning that it could be anything from crap to life changing.
So it was with the merest hint of trepidation that I entered the theatre last Friday evening. I don’t want to see Brecht treated like a religious text, and I’m far from being against adaptation and so on in principle, but would it really work?
Over the following three hours, there were moments when it felt as though I was closer to the soul of the Weimar cabaret scene than I have ever been before – even when listening to the songs of that era.
Brecht’s tale of London’s underworld, where the poor cannot afford ethics, is as resonant today as ever. Hypocrisy, the bread and circuses of pageantry, sex and violence and sexual violence, now with added gender play – it’s all here.
|Roslie Craig as Polly and Rory Kinnear as Macheath|
As too are beggars, disabled military veterans, crooked coppers and men whose minds have been damaged by war – appropriately, in Afghanistan.
While some changes have also been made to the song lyrics, Kurt Weill’s score is treated with due reverence and performed superbly by an eight-piece band, as it was originally. And this, of course, includes the iconic Mack the Knife.
It’s difficult to reconcile the doubts of some critics as to the quality of the singing – it was excellent throughout and Weill’s music has rarely sounded so downright, deep down sexy.
Indeed, many of the songs offer a very different feel to the general cynicism and decadence of the whole, giving characters the chance to reveal that they do dream and imagine something better, in sharp contrast to their physical, everyday lives.
But here’s the nub. In enjoying the dysfunctionality that is portrayed in front of us, we become complicit in the cruelty. It’s like Jeremy Kyle on speed.
Brecht has tied us in philosophical knots – with a piece of theatre that claims to eschew any moral.
Norris’s direction is spot on, giving us a performance of unrelenting energy and pace.
Vicki Mortimer’s design is wonderful – making the artifice and theatricality absolutely clear. Having characters enter and leave by tearing (or cutting) their way though paper flats is really effective – and the ruined mass of flats that creates Macheath’s den is so evocative of the decay all around (and also reminiscent of the set in GW Pabst’s 1931 film version).
The costumes evoke the Weimar period, with added Keystone cops and robbers.
The cast is uniformally excellent.
As Macheath, Rory Kinnear seems to be a physically calm presence in the midst of a whirlwind of action around him. But there’s always something sinister in that calm; a sense of latent violence – he brings to mind the brooding menace of the Mitchell brothers in EastEnders, but with knobs on; a thug with a soft underbelly.
But as Peachum, Nick Holder outdoes him in the nastiness stakes – perhaps most particularly when turned into a rotund Louise Brooks-alike in the second act; pinstripe suited and on black heels, threats and brutality his daily currency.
|Nick Holder as Peachum and Peter de Jersey as 'Tiger' Brown|
Haydn Gwynne as Mrs Peachum is in wonderful form, while Rosalie Craig makes a marvelous Polly – apparently vulnerable and naïve, yet hard as nails when she needs to be.
Sharon Small is a super Jenny – her Surabaya Johnny is simply excellent, ranging from the poignant cry of a dreamer to the incandescent rage of the abused.
A special mention too, to Jamie Beddard as Matthais, one of Macheath’s four core gang members: casting a disabled actor in the role brings an extra dimension to the work’s sense of being about the disenfranchised and discarded of society, and Beddard’s performance adds a really ballsy note to proceedings.
It is great to see Elisabeth Hauptmann’s contribution as collaborator recognised – her German translation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera formed the basis for The Threepenny Opera.
This production might not be ‘life changing’ theatre – but it is an excellent, provocative, in-your-face, fuck-you evening’s entertainment that will live for a very, very long time in the memory.
I rather think Bert would have approved. The Other Half certainly hasn’t stopped singing since.
It’s in repertory until October. Find out more at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.