Theatre in Wales

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Complex, arresting, and inexplicably sympathetic.

Threepenny Opera

National Theatre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , November-11-02
With lines like “You have to kill your neighbour to survive / It’s selfishness that keeps a man alive” and “Feed us and then we’ll behave,” Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1928 agitprop opera is an always caustic, sometimes dismal piece of grand guignol. As Mack harangues his goons, “There is a difference between shocking people and getting on their nerves” and this production, directed by Tim Baker, usually fulfills Brecht’s intention to do more of the former than the latter. It did seem profoundly odd to watch the National Theatre’s production in a proscenium theatre with red plush seats, not, for example, in a converted warehouse with a concrete floor. (That the tickets for the ‘threepenny opera,’ Brecht’s revolt against the artistic, political, and economic establishment, cost 6 and upward would be ironic if it weren’t for the economic realities of theatre production.) The production is also engaging, well-staged, and well-sung.

This translation, by Jeremy Sams (lyrics) and Anthony Meech (book), takes place at the present day, not, as in Brecht’s update of John Gay’s operetta The Beggar’s Opera, on the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. Sam’s and Meech’s topical revisions are most bitingly effective when they don’t have to reach for relevance. Mack and his best mate, Police Commissioner “Tiger”/“Jackie” Brown sing about their past as British army comrades in “the Gulf” and “Afghanistan,” not in Brecht’s “Kathmandu,” but the song (“We help the foreigner / To meet the coroner”) remains horribly relevant. An amendation to the final scene, when the Queen intervenes in Mack’s date with Justice was almost certainly spliced in during the last week or so and drew resounding laughter from the audience. However, Brecht’s pseudo-Victorian underworld doesn’t always metamorphose into a convincing twenty-first-century context. In “A Knocking-Shop in Bethnal Green,” Jenny’s recollection of a dangerous DIY abortion suggests illegality anachronistic for London 2002. Occasionally it didn’t seem clear what the play was protesting, or with what degree of conviction. The designers played up the issue of apathy and disgust towards the homeless, and placed a door and dirty sleeping bag outside the theatre door with a sign reading ‘please pass by with pitying look.’ These interpolations seemed rather contrived and tacked on.

The Prologue “devised by the company” which involved audience surveys and a short scene of wooden dialogue showing the actors exploring Brechtian theory, was unnecessary and pretentious. A mini-lecture given to the audience seemed to owe something to Brecht’s concept of the didactic opera (schulopern) but ground the play to a halt before it had even started, but once the actors began the play itself they kept the audience’s attention until the bitter, nonsensical end.

As Low-Dive Jenny, Liz Marsh gives an alternately simmering and explosive performance. Her Jenny is a steely Spartan, economical with her feelings, even with her rage. She markedly departs from both the stock type of the operetta prostitute and from Lotte Lenya’s sometimes flighty Jenny in the 1931 film version. The casting of both men and women as both Macheath’s boys in the gang and Macheath’s girls in the whorehouse is an inspired decision.

As Captain Macheath, a.k.a. Mack the Knife, Michael Shaeffer is amazing. He skulks across the stage, occasionally bursting into more dynamic movement during the songs, suggesting perpetually bottled rage. He peers at the audience, chin lowered toward the floor. He almost snarls the songs, and in the non-musical dialogue, his voice snaps rather than thunders. Mark Bailey’s costume design adds other interesting facets to this character. Macheath’s purple satin suit is too big: it makes him look slight, diminished: authoritative rather than powerful. (Casting a Jenny who is much taller than him, putting her in stiletto boots, and making them dance together emphasises this.) The bad fit also indicates the suit might be stolen. Combined with the requisite scarf, gloves, and walking stick, the suit adds to the sense that Macheath is an exile from another, past or never-real world of Dickensian organised crime and eighteenth-century idealized highwaymen. While illustrating Brecht’s ideas political and aesthetic, Baker hasn’t forgotten to create a character who is complex and arresting, and sometimes inexplicably sympathetic.

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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