The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
In collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann
In a new adaptation by Simon Stephens
Even before Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill adapted The Beggar's Opera, a pioneering eighteenth century English satiric ballad play, later a huge London success in 1920 adapted by Nigel Playfair and Arnold Bennett from John Gay's original, there was a Berlin connection.
Gay had used commonly known folk airs and tunes from popular operas such as those of German-born George Frederick Handel. And the arranger of Gay's songs was Berlin-born John Christopher Pepusch. Of course, the king of Britain was also German-born, still reigning over Hanoverian domains.
But by the time Berlin-born Brecht, using Marxist principles as a springboard, and composer Weill wrote Die Dreigroschenoper for their company of actors and cabaret artistes, Germany had lost the First World War and its empire and ousted its own Royal family - cousins of the British royals - in favour of a war-reparations' blighted republic plagued by political and gangland street fighting. And of course Marx and Engels had lived in England and kept the British Empire in mind for their analyses of capitalism.
So what do we get for our equivalent of 3d entry fee, the £15 Travelex, at the National Theatre? Simon Stephens has been recruited by the National Theatre's artistic director Rufus Norris, who also directs, to write a new version of Brecht and Weill's adaptation of John Gay's (keep up those at the back!) musical, this time set in a time-limbo Limehouse and Soho.
We have never seen another production of the German classic, but it seems the mix of Dickensian and Jack The Ripper London has given way in this update to a mash up London. The coronation of Victoria (another German speaker!) is now that of an unnamed King who by the fashions worn and the references made could be a fictional collage of anyone from Edward VIII to Prince Harry.
Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig), accountant daughter of Soho gangland boss Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Nick Holder) and his sozzled but scheming wife Celia (Haydn Gwynne), has secretly married Captain MacHeath (Rory Kinnear), an ex-soldier gangster who served with the soon-to-be crowned King in the army and knows where the bodies are buried. His army connections serve him further with another crooked ex-army colleague being Chief Inspector "Tiger" Brown (Peter de Jersey).
Nevertheless his marriage to Polly, while he continues to frequent brothels and doesn't break off with the police chief's daughter Lucy (Debbie Kurup), starts a chain of events which sees his own criminal empire gradually unravel before - well, you'll have to go and see it to find out what happens.;)
The Beggar's Opera itself amalgamated sly digs at the vogue for opera with political satire against then prime minister Robert Walpole and incorporating outlaws such as real life double dealer Jonathan Wild as part of a criminal ruling class deliberately equated with the political class. So in that sense Brecht and Weill were following a traditional route in creating their updated thieving-class opera for the opening in 1928 of Theater am Schiffbauerdamm following the success of The Beggar's Opera in London.
Designed by Vicki Mortimer, the current production has a set with paper and wood scenery flats, easily torn by characters climbing centre stage for their theatrical moments. Scaffolding, a crescent moon and ladders also draw attention to the theatricality of the piece which even those with the only the slightest, and second hand, acquaintance with Brecht's work know as his trademark.
Although the ladders, judging by a programme note, may possibly, along with Peachum pere's apron also be masonic symbolism with a gesture towards Mozart. Kinnear makes MacHeath a hard-bitten stocky military veteran rather than a decadent charmer.
The star for us was Rosalie Craig's Polly Peachum whose voice rose above a rather busy production (making it difficult to assess the strength of the script) where we found many of the songs did not have the clarity and impact we expected. However the show's most famous song, Mac The Knife, is sung clearly by George Ikediashi's Balladeer (by-the-by, surely an influence on Sondheim's Assassins?) at the beginning and yes, it's true to say, MacHeath does have an extremely large knife ...
Drawing attention in my second hand interpretation of Brecht to my text as text in this critique :), I had exactly the same feeling as fellow blogger Rev Stan that I would have liked to have seen an earlier translation to compare with this one. This show felt a tad predictable and imprisoned rather than reaching out with bite and resonance. Almost, dare one say it, a production for those who want to recognize and tick off with satisfaction what they view as Brechtian elements.
While DW Griffith' was portraying Limehouse in at least one of his silent moviea, this production makes the decision to bring in Keystone cops and have at least one Buster Keaton moment. While this is a fictional London, surely there is a rich seam in its history to be mined and fictionalized?
Soho's past with its notorious porn squad, even elements of Lord Lucan's disappearance and in the current day the changing of London into residential investments for the super rich and international institutional pension funds - surely there is scope for these or other matters without distracting from the original story in its enduringly flexible framework?
OK, we haven't seen that much Brecht - Schweyk in the Second World War in the 1980s and Mother Courage in 2009, both at the National - or Weill (One Touch of Venus and Lady In The Dark). But these all had the ability to surprise. This felt safe rather than dangerous and stimulating and unlikely to attract the cross section of audiences the original 1928 production lured into the theatre. So we're still looking for an updated Beggar's and Threepenny Opera for our times but, in the meantime, for this version an amber light.