'Threepenny Opera' review or 'Let's make this penny sparkle.'

Threepenny Opera, Brecht/Stephens
National Theatre, 26th May 2016 
Written for Exeunt 

I rarely relish the thought of seeing Brecht, especially in Britain – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. There’s so much history swirling around this titan of theatre, so much learning and politics and smug self-importance (often on behalf of the theatre-makers) that the productions often turn out to be unbelievably dry and draining. Very few Brecht productions have made my eyes sparkle – let alone lit a fire in belly, which Brecht is so patently meant to do. So the good news with this adaptation from Simon Stephens – directed with one hell of a swagger from Rufus Norris – is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I giggled shitloads in the first half. The bad news? This version of Brecht’sThreepenny Opera doesn’t take itself seriously enough.
There’s a slight feeling of panto to this winking, burping and swearing Brechtian circus show. Actually, that’s not quite right: this feels more like an end of term school concert. It’s as if all the very clever and sensible people at The National have been told to let loose and go a little crazy. It’s endearing and fun to watch so many profoundly talented bods let it all hang out, but all feels a little vague and underfired – as if everyone is slightly hungover and ready for the holidays.
The excellent and troubling thing about this production is that so many of the actors are so wildly out of their comfort zones. It’s brilliant to see our actors pushing themselves (and the musicians attempt to hold a tune whilst being ceaselessly revolved around the stage) and it says a lot about Rufus Norris that so many great actors are willing to take a considerable gamble with roles that don’t, at least on paper, make the most of their skills. I can imagine an alternative reality in which Rory Kinnear’s turn as right old wrong’un Macheath (or Mack the Knife) turned out to be the performance of his career; a sort of Sweeney Todd/Michael Ball amazing reversal moment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Oh, that just doesn’t happen at all.
I’ll put your mind at rest: Rory Kinnear can sing. In fact, he’s got better rhythm than a lot of the actors, many of whom struggle to sing in time (that might be something to do with the fact that the conductor and orchestra spend a lot of time squeezed into the back of Vicki Mortimer’s scattered and shattered set). Kinnear’s songs are as sharp and brutal as the gigantic shiny knife he wields (complete with shimmering sound effect) at all those who get in his way. No, the singing isn’t the issue here – it’s the acting. Now, I’m signed up to the Kinnear Fan Club along with the rest of us. I think he’s pretty much the best actor of his generation – but he barely makes an impact here. Macheath is a peach of a role; a man who spends most of time singing splendid songs, wielding his knife, charming the pants off every lady in sight and generally spreading his amoral seed with gay abandon. Think Jack Sparrow only on dry land. But Kinnear – for one reason or another – never really gets going. His performance isn’t all that sexy, for a start: way too still and measured. It’s as if the whole ‘Brecht’ thing is getting in the way and Kinnear is so worried about staying outside his performance – winking at us as he acts – that he forgets to actually act. His muted turn is one of the biggest disappointments and problems of the night. If Macheath doesn’t seduce us then Brecht isn’t going to have much luck either.
Rosalie Craig is utterly charming as Polly Peachum, the daughter of beggar-boss Jonathan Peachum. The only problem, though, is that Craig’s singing blows everyone else’s vocals out the water. When Craig sings, Kurt Weill’s original orchestrations suddenly have an energy and intent about them that is missing elsewhere. Where lots of the other actors croak and stumble (lots of the actors’ voices sound knackered – too much space to fill), Craig soars. Having said that, I’m still not convinced – for all her skills – that Craig is the ideal actor for this role. I could’ve done with someone grittier, uglier and more off beat; with Craig, it’s quite tricky not to spot the gorgeous and clean musical star that lies beneath Brecht’s often-ugly or shocking intent.
It’s not just Rosalie Craig who’s too pretty for my liking – the whole show feels a bit too clean and palatable. The beggars are dressed in sort of nude body costumes; they look weird but never disturbing. The whores are all Moulin Rouge chic – lots of garish eye shadow and whacky hair – and even Sharon Small’s drug-addled Jenny looks glamorous in her despair.
The same goes for Vicki Mortimer’s set, which is a shambles but never really shocking or ugly. Mortimer’s design is made up a collection of jaggedy and paper thin frameworks, which are frequently burst through for comic effect. It’s funny the first five times but eventually gets old. A few of the set pieces are stunning, especially the act finales when all the actors drape themselves over a gigantic framework of crisscrossing staircases, corridors and pathways. Everywhere the eye roams, life is bubbling or draining away.
There are wonderful comic flourishes too. In the opening scene – as George Ikediashi sings that goddam gorgeous number ‘Mack the Knife’ (destroyed by many an easy jazz singer) – Macheath’s dastardly history is sketched in using a man-sized Punch ‘n’ Judy show. Brilliant. Later, Macheath and Polly make their grand wedding-night entrance on a giant suspended moon, shagging away as the sparkling moon swings away in the rafters. Later still, Macheath and Chief Inspector Tiger Brown (Peter de Jersey) sing about the glory of battle, whilst bloody body bags dance overhead.
All these moments – most of which take place in the first half – are lively and distinctive and bloody good fun. But at some point the joke wears thin and, once the laughs have dried up, there’s very little left to play with. Simon Stephens has missed a huge trick by failing to decisively relocate Brecht’s play. The action unfolds in the East End and the setting remains vaguely Victorian – although we really could be anywhere and at any time. Why not use Brecht to really talk about politics today? Why not make the poor properly poor – rather than pretty and theatrical poor? Why not work harder to make the central message of this piece – you need cash to get ahead in a capitalistic society – really sing?
There are some lines in here that fall woefully short – and suggest the much fiercer and more pointed production this might have been. Jonathan Peachum (played with glorious malice by a suited and high heeled Nick Holder) is head of a gaggle of homeless Londoners; surely there is a way to make that set up feel relevant and painful? Macheath is constantly let off the hook by a rampantly corrupt police force; surely that set-up should shock and hurt us? At the end of the play, Macheath sings a spectacular song, which boils over with burning hypocrisy, as he challenges the audience to judge themselves as they judge those on stage. Kinnear turns to the middle class National audience and spits out at us: ‘You diabolical fuckers!’ The audience chuckled; how I wish they hadn’t.


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