In review: The Threepenny OperaReview
“This is an opera for a city that has gone beyond morality. This…is a cheap opera.”
Perhaps the most refreshing thing we’ve seen in a long time was Rufus Norris’ production of The Threepenny Opera, playing until October at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre. The “play with music” by that grand duo, Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill, was a new adaptation by playwright Simon Stephens. It’s true that this was our first time seeing the show, but there was a beautifully organic quality about Stephens’ use of Brecht’s text. The characters had a raw quality about them, and everything from the professions of love to the most vulgar of insults seemed to fit that gritty world of Brecht and Weill.
“You ain’t gonna find elegance in the Olivier when Threepenny Opera’s on,” assured Stephens in an interview about his adaptation for the National Theatre, “you’re gonna find mess and chaos and blood and sex and crime, and great, great tunes.”
That mess and chaos was what pervaded this Threepenny Opera, and the entire team of artists created it with ironic meticulousness. Vicki Mortimer’s design let us see the guts of the stage; the backs of wall panels and crude carpentry created a London that was crowded and transparent at the same time. The stage wavered from cluttered street scenes to minimalist moments, where a singular piece of set like a staircase or a full moon drew the eye to the stuff of the story.
Stephens’ translation let us in to a specific world, full of odd people whom we felt we already knew; there seemed nothing clunky about his texts. Surprisingly, the playwright has no opera libretti on his résumé, despite his able skill with combining text and music. The cast of characters included the band of Musicians, lead by Music Director David Shrubsole, who served as set pieces and ensemble members, all while delivering a sound that felt perfectly indifferent, unsympathetic to the onstage mess around them.
From leading role to ensemble, the cast seemed born straight out of the Threepenny world. Rory Kinnear was unlikeable yet forgiveable as Macheath (Mack the Knife, as he’s known), setting up a perfect mousy-girl-with-hidden-strength in Rosalie Craig’s Polly Peachum. Polly’s ridiculous parents, played by Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder, felt like hilariously dangerous cartoon creatures from somewhere between Fleet Street and a Tim Burton film.
Everyone sang with their own voice, and Rosalie Craig’s stunning colours are a musical highlight of the show. Yet the stuff of this show lay in the endless ensemble cast, in the booming voice of George Ikediashki as the Balladeer, the sassy wail of Debbie Kurup as Macheath’s alleged first (and still current) wife, Lucy Brown, and Sharon Small’s endearing and tragic simplicity as Jenny, one of Macheath’s favourite working women.
Norris’ production seems to make ingenious use of the fragmented, exaggerated world of Brecht’s and Weill’s, with not-so-subtle visual symbols, planted in a thoughtfully heavy-handed way. The Mercurial wings on the Balladeer’s helmet, the Valkyrie-like horns in the final ensemble (this is an opera, after all), even the pairs of red leather boots that both Lucy and Polly wear (sharing them as they do Mack); even the indicative signs like “OVER-TURE” and “BROTHEL” were reminiscent of that obtuse way of advertising in the early 20th century.
Threepenny is a show that reminds us of how tame our opera world can be. Singing contemporary curse words and showing unromantic sex are still relatively rare on the opera stage, even if the stories themselves are full of the same amount of emotional extremes. Whether or not you’re the type to point at “gratuity” or “shock value,” what Norris’ production achieves is a totally organic theatre experience. At times the whole thing feels like meta-theatre, and other times the action holds you rapt.
Plus, how can you not sway to the strains of “Mack the Knife”?
The Threepenny Opera plays until October 1 at the Olivier Theatre. Click here for details and to book your tickets.