sat 13/07/2024

The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre

The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre

A brutally efficient adaptation of Brecht and Weill's grubby classic

The face of a killer: Rory Kinnear's Macheath is all cold psychosis and manipulationBill Knight

Last seen at the National Theatre over 10 years ago, Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera is back in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens. But looking at Rufus Norris’s epic-theatre-lite production – all exposed stage-mechanics and makeshift sets – and listening to Stephens’s brutal but non-committal text, you’d swear it had never been away.

There’s no aggressive update, no attempt to reinvent or make relevant, and the result is a clean, cold stab of a show, a theatrical assault every bit as cool and casual as Mack’s own murders.

It starts badly. For all that this is a “play with music” rather than a piece of musical theatre, you still wouldn’t wish “Mack the Knife” on anyone making their stage-singing debut. Rory Kinnear (who sings beautifully) can’t help but enjoy Weill’s jaunty melody a bit too much, giving us too pretty a performance, one that smuggles those pointed lyrics across a little too successfully. It’s a misleading start for a Macheath whose brutality only grows as the show progresses, whose cold self-interest is all the more unnerving for a inscrutable refusal to charm. Kinnear’s lady-killer is no loveable rogue but a PTSD-suppressing maniac who uses sex to win him everything that violence can’t.

Simon Stephens’s adaptation gives Kinnear and his fellow grotesques all the verbal ammunition they need to hurl at their audience. This anti-capitalist parable, “carved out of the meat of our city”, is light on the politics but heavy with rage. While physical violence here is comic (long skeins of knotty red entrails ooze from Mack’s victims) there’s nothing funny about the verbal violence that brutalises and batters its way through Brecht’s seedy plot. Keen to shock (too keen, at times) Stephens finds a thudding staccato rhythms in his writing – the verbal twin of Weill’s Overture, with its stabbing woodwind – that keeps a long evening dancing to his rather sordid beat.

He’s helped by an energetic ensemble cast, but anyone going for Weill’s score should note that (with a few exceptions – Rosalie Craig’s Polly, pictured right with Kinnear Debbie Kurup’s Lucy) these are definitely singing actors rather than musical theatre performers. In some cases this works, matching the makeshift quality of Vicki Mortimer’s sets with a more rough and ready style of singing, but elsewhere it proves more damaging. Weill’s songs are designed to supplement all the emotion squeezed out of Brecht’s alienating text, and if performers can’t tap into that power, even with the support of David Shrubsole and his superb musicians, it’s a problem.

Sharon Small’s broken doll of a Jenny Diver – dramatically so frayed, so beautifully brittle –  is the main victim here, struggling through not only her own songs, but also the unaccountable addition of “Surabaya Johnny” from Happy End. Fortunately, “Pirate Jenny” reverts to its original home with Polly, dispatched with controlled venom by Craig, who also makes much of that catchy ballad to domestic abuse “The Barbara Song”. The filthy “Jealousy Duet” for Polly and Lucy, gloriously and obscenely updated by Stephens, makes it hard to remember that earlier translations contented themselves with insults as wholesome as “thick ankles”. If Nick Holder’s “perfumed ponce” of a Peachum comes in and out of focus, there’s nothing but delicious comic certainty from Haydn Gwynne (pictured left with Holder) as his raddled wife.

Framed in an oversized puppet theatre – all paper windows and cardboard walls – Mortimer’s tumbledown set offers Norris’s characters the kingdom they deserve. Everything is exposed, from lighting rigs to an ostentatious revolve mechanism, a stage set disembowelled for all to see. And that’s the thing about this production; everything is on show, exposed, but nothing is really revealed. These grubby, grasping figures keep their emotions close, as Brecht intended, and the result is a lively examination of hate, violence, brutality, but a show that never quite gets to the nub of the matter – a stab in the eye, but never the heart.

If Nick Holder’s “perfumed ponce” of a Peachum comes in and out of focus, there’s nothing but delicious comic certainty from Haydn Gwynne as his raddled wife.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I'll never forget Jeremy Sams' outrageous adaptation-translation for the Donmar (with Tom Hollander as Mackie) - still have the lyrics in my head when I hear the German (not least the National Front/BNP version of the Cannon Song). Looking forward to this from what you write.

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