Friday, 23 September 2016

The National Theatre's 2016 production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" (1928): A Review

Most of us know the character of Macheath, or "Mack the Knife", through the Louis Armstrong song of the same name: one of the best refrains of musical theatre, with a very simple yet memorable melody and terrific lyrics. But Captain Macheath, of course, and the song in question, come from "The Threepenny Opera" (Die Dreigroschenoper) by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, which first debuted in Berlin in August 1928. Brecht wrote the text and Weill the music to this highly unusual "play with music", as it is sometimes described: just slightly too highbrow for a (traditional) musical, just slightly too lowbrow for a (traditional) opera. It emerged in that unique space and time where operas were seguing into musicals, and it beautifully bridges the two. It deploys uniquely creative and innovative operatic techniques specifically to lampoon and ridicule opera's perceived elitism. It is joyfully anarchic, revelling in disobeying all kinds of rules, and not so much breaking the fourth wall as pummelling it to pieces, sweeping up the resulting dust and scattering it to the four winds before blowing the rudest raspberry you have ever heard and setting to work on drilling through the fifth wall. And since I was watching it on a cinema screen, there really was a fifth wall of sorts, and by the end it felt like that had fallen too.

Until now, Brecht hasn't quite worked for me; I've studied a couple of his plays and various poems of his, and while I mostly enjoyed his poems, the plays simply don't work on the page; more than anything else ever written as drama, Brecht must be performed. He is crying out to be performed, so that his earthiness can slap the audience in the face as much as possible and the artificiality of his theatre can be enhanced to a ludicrous degree. Unfortunately, such is his art that very often he is badly performed: rendering his plays sanctimonious and preachy. Thank goodness, then, for the wonderful Rufus Norris and the equally wonderful National Theatre, who have done a pitch-perfect take on "The Threepenny Opera" in an acclaimed new version by Simon Stephens currently showing down in London. Retaining various fabulous German Expressionist aesthetic elements yet setting the play in the London of today, Norris and Stephens give us a barnstorming production that is one of the best things I have ever seen on a London stage. The National is in a particularly politically engaged phase of its existence right now, and with Brexit-inspired plays on the horizon, as much outreach as they can manage, and productions like "The Threepenny Opera" dominating his repertoire, Norris is quickly becoming one of my favourite theatre directors of all time.

Stephens' translation is as earthy, obscene and profane as possible; "the world is fucked and life is shit" is only one of his more memorable song refrains. This spills over into the characters, who are all brought to lewd, vivid, grotesque life with a relish Dickens himself would have envied. "Threepenny", despite debuting in 1920s Berlin, was originally written to take place in Victorian London - a homage to, if not quite a copy of, the original Augustan drama The Beggar's Opera on which it is based, written in 1728, exactly two hundred years earlier. Its heritage, then, is as a story of the desperate and downtrodden, prostitutes and beggars, criminals and good-for-nothings, whether in the 18th, 19th, 20th or 21st centuries. There is perhaps a piquancy to the Weimar-Republic-era production that can never quite be recaptured, in that many of the actors who would have appeared on stage in Brecht and Weill's version were genuinely starving, and thus genuinely performing for their lives to stay off the streets. One can only imagine how vivid and real that must have felt, in a nation so crippled by hyperinflation, so politically torn, and so impoverished.

It would be massively disingenuous to pretend that the London of 2016 is remotely comparable to the Berlin of 1928, that the National Theatre isn't a big establishment theatre in one of the wealthiest cities on Earth, and that actors like Rory Kinnear (here taking the lead as Macheath) are down-and-outs rather than distinguished stage performers. So Rufus Norris doesn't. And the production is all the stronger for that, given that Brechtian "epic" theatre actively embraces the artificial anyway - from the elaborately-done "homespun" look to the set (in truth a technical wonder, but constructed to look like it was made for about, well, three pennies I suppose) to gorgeous lines like "I don't have a character!", "there isn't a moral" and "this is a cheap opera" which one might expect to find in pantomime. But the strength of Brecht has always been the use of artificiality to highlight reality, specifically by drawing attention to how artificial the artificial really is. There is a sense in which the falsehood of it is the magic: "ask yourselves what you would choose/If you were standing in our shoes", sings Rory Kinnear (and what a surprisingly terrific singing voice he has), and no, of course we are not persuaded that he is actually a starving actor addressing a comfortable, middle-class audience.

But the magnetic draw of the resources the National Theatre have means there is something even more anarchic about their staging such an anti-elitist, aggressively pro-working class play. Because this is the biggest theatre in Britain in one of the biggest, wealthiest, most capitalist capitals in the world, and it gives us this....A particularly pointed use of the English flag (a comment on the folly of Brexit if ever I saw one). A joyfully liberating sense of gender-fluid, colour-blind, diverse casting, from George Ikediashi, a superlative cross-dressing opera singer, to the wheelchair-bound, disabled, best-laughs-of-the-night James Beddard, and the resolute steel of the terrific Rosalie Craig as Polly Peachum. A portrayal of the miserable lives of the destitute (and let's also not pretend that there aren't any destitute in the London of 2016). And ultimately the proclamation that even storytelling, the rules of drama, have for the most part been invented by the wealthy. "We can't have ethics that we can't afford", these streetwise characters plead, and just as the story seems to be careering towards a judgmental, moralistic ending in which Kinnear's manipulative and violent Macheath is going to be hanged for his various crimes, it shifts gears, puts two fingers up at such convention, and has him saved to become a baron instead. Because rescuing the destitute we put in jail, yes even those who commit real crimes, makes a better story than killing them. And because it challenges the audience the way good Brecht productions must: if you thought the artificiality was better than the reality, what does that say you should do about the reality?

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