The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann
in new adaptation by Simon Stephens
Directed by Rufus Norris. Designed by Vicki Mortimer
Music Director David Shrubsole
Captain Machreath aka Mack the Knife
Chief Inspector Brown
PETER DE JERSEY
Continues in repertory at the Olivier Auditorium of the National Theatre
South Bank, London, England
**** (out of five)
The Threepenny Opera is to musical theatre what a butcher’s cleaver is to meat. It cuts through meat and bone with merciless brutality and, to mix metaphors, leaves no prisoners. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill attacked and parodied opera, private property, capitalism, morality and the justice system (the list is incomplete) in decadent and hellish Berlin of the 1920’s with the relish of a butcher chopping a bull. What they did was a violent critique but also an artistic revolution.
Based loosely on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny can be set in any big city but placing it in its home base of East London is just perfect. The National Theatre gives the work a robust production in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens.
Set in the underworld of Victorian England before a coronation, the play deals with the colourful, amoral, vicious criminals, corrupt police and the dregs of society. The music and songs are visceral and in-your-face just like the criminals who dominate society’s leftovers. The current production is not set in any particular period. It could be the late 19th century judging by the long dresses that the women wear but the date is irrelevant.
The opera opens with the familiar and powerful “Ballad of Mack the Knife” sung by George Ikediashi. Then we get down to business with the disgusting Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum. Nick Holder as Peachum is overweight, wears a three-piece suit and is the boss of London’s beggars whom he outfits at their cost and collects 50% of their earnings. It is a fine franchise operation, if somewhat monopolistic.
But there is competition in Captain Macheath also known as Mack the Knife (Rory Kinnear). The nicely dressed Mack is cool and efficient and his nickname has the benefit of truth in advertising with the slight drawback of lack of moral content. Kinnear has a very fine voice and he is an exuberant if vicious gentleman compared to Peachum who is somewhat of a pig.
There is a rich collection of colourful characters in this underworld. We have Peachum’s new recruit in the begging business, the pathetic Filch (Sarah Amankwah), his wife Celia Peacham (Haydn Gwynn), his daughter Polly (Rosalie Craig), Chief Inspector Brown (Peter de Jersey) and an assortment of prostitutes and criminals.
The music and the singing are striking, powerful and unsettling. This is the underbelly of London and they want you to know it. The fine cast generates energy, some comic business but overall gives a frightful impression of corruption and human abuse.
The set by Designer Vicki Mortimer is a ramshackle of boards and covered boxes. There is no attempt at realistic theatre. It could be a warehouse or a rehearsal hall.
Director Rufus Norris and adapter Simon Stephens make sure that this is in-your-face theatre. They want you to know that they are putting on a show (as did Brecht, of course) and that you are not watching anything resembling a realistic reenactment.