National Theatre (Olivier)
18th June, 2016
Brecht. The words ‘Marxist’, ‘dry’, ‘didactic’ and ‘po-faced’ come to mind. I don’t claim to be any expert, but I think I’d be forgiven for failing to associate his work with the words ‘fun’, or ‘entertaining’. Yet Rufus Norris’ production of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (a new version by Simon Stephens) has, in all its merry immorality, proven that assumption wrong. Here Brecht’s occasionally exhausting theory is combined with enough humour and energy to hold our immediate, aesthetically driven, interest, making the ubiquitous socio-political lessons much more palatable.
The satirical anti-tragedy charts notorious criminal, Macheath’s (Rory Kinnear) marriage to Polly Peacham (Rosalie Craig), daughter of the controller of London’s beggars. Questions regarding capitalist social structures, the power that money holds over relationships, loyalties and emotions, and the immoral lengths people go to in order to survive come to the fore through a series of double-crossings and betrayals. Act 2 sees the comic gears turned up, from Mack’s knowing quips to the audience – ‘You came back?!’ – to the farcical prison scene where Mack is confronted by the many women in his life and some gloriously childish humour (I love a good bum joke), before we hurtle towards the ridiculously improbable (yet satirically perfect) finale. A sole moment of un-Brechtian catharsis arises as, following Mack’s monumentally un-PC rant, Jamie Beddard’s Matthias consolidates what the entire audience are thinking in one piercingly precise, foul-mouthed utterance – an uproariously fist-pumping moment if ever there was one.
Kinnear is a solid Macheath, breezing through Weill’s songs with an assured baritone timbre (who knew?), and while perhaps not the physical embodiment of hunkiness that would stereotypically attract so many women, he conveys a compellingly seedy charisma that convinces of Mack’s magnetism. He is exuberantly supported by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as the Peacham’s, their cartoonish characterisation exemplary of the glue that binds both theory and entertainment. The sturdy ensemble is rounded off by a scene-stealing turn from Sharon Small as Jenny, her raspy voice and rag doll appearance prove that Brechtian characters can be empathetic without being a detriment to the political ‘cause’.
However, the real star of the show is Vicki Mortimer’s design of bare-boned theatrical intricacy. Paper-lined scaffolds and staircases leading to nowhere are in constant transit, expertly choreographed to form a vast maze through which the actors and musicians lurk, wind, and in frustration, burst through. The fourth wall is not merely absent, but torn, ripped and stabbed to shreds, utterly shattering our suspension of disbelief. As such, my eye and mind was drawn towards appreciating the technical aspects involved in creating theatre. Mortimer and Norris’ excellence lies in their seemingly simple story-telling devices which, when examined more closely, are actually an acutely mechanised and complex series of cogs, all expertly conducted to whirl and spark with perfect timing. And the result is pure, theatrical magic.
For anyone perhaps hesitant in embracing Brechtian theatre, I’d recommend The Threepenny Opera as a starting point. Weill’s music is charming, hilariously off-set by Stephens’ unsentimental lyrics (‘Stupid twat. Stupid twat’ is one of my favourites for being so to-the-point), and the theatricality of Norris’ production emphasises the less-controversial aspects of Brechtian theory in celebrating the stage for what it is.
The Threepenny Opera plays at the National Theatre until 1st October.