Review from London, Eng. THE THREEPENNY OPERA

by Lynn on June 28, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre, London, Eng.

Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
New adaptation by Simon Stephens
Directed by Rufus Norris
Designed by Vicki Mortimer
Music Director, David Shrubsole
Choreography by Imogen Knight
Lighting by Paule Constable
Sound by Paul Arditti
Cast: Sarah Amankwah
Hammed Animashaun
Toyin Ayedun-Alase
Jamie Beddard
Andrew Buckley
Ricky Butt
Mark Carroll
Rosalie Craig
Matt Cross
Haydn Gwynne
Nick Holder
George Ikediashi
Peter de Jersey
Rory Kinnear
Debbie Kurup
Conor Neaves
Sharon Small
Wendy Somerville
Dominic Tighe

An angry, contemporary version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera about the thieving class stiffing the upper class but not before they stiff each other. And Mack the Knife is in the thick of it with his womanizing, scheming, and slicing his enemies. That is one big knife he carries.

The Story. East London, around the time of the coronation of the king but with a modern sensibility. Captain Macheath, AKA ‘Mack the Knife’ has just married Polly Peachum, daughter of Mr. Peachum, leader of a huge band of beggars and petty thieves. They rob from anybody and don’t trust anyone. Polly seems prim and proper—she’s an accountant, but she’s tough and smart. Mrs. Peachum, Polly’s femme fatale Mum, has also had a fling with Mack and she’s furious for being passed over.

Mack has had several liaisons with several women. Everybody knows something about everybody else and they hold that information close to their chests until the time comes to use it as leverage. It comes when too many women have been jilted by Mack—one being Lucy Brown, daughter of Chief Inspector ‘Tiger’ Brown. Mack is turned into the police and is set to hang. Life is mean and cruel. Will Mack get his just desserts?

The Production. Director Rufus Norris places this in the grunge of the unadorned Olivier stage. Designed by Vickie Mortimer, this is anything but haphazard. It is a bleak, dark world. Flats stand over there; bits and pieces of props are scattered. Not a pretty world.

Rory Kinnear as Mack the Knife comes out with a mop and mops the perimeter of the playing area. He is dapper in a three piece dark blue suit with a knife that looks to be a foot long, which he neatly places in his inside jacket pocket—that is one long pocket. His eyes are rimmed with black. He looks neat, fastidious and dangerous. Well that knife will certainly give one pause. He is both angelic and sneering and on top of all the other brilliant things this gifted actor does he can sing too.

The whole rag-tag cast are haunted-looking. Mr. Peachum (Nick Holder) is a sartorial, portly fellah with a penchant for women’s low heels and the occasional fetching woman’s wig. Holder is that kind of dangerous man, like Mack the Knife, who wields power by speaking quietly and slowly. He make threats and keeps them. He warns Jenny Diver to tell him where Mack is or he will break her finger. She hesitates. He goes at that finger and we hear the most gut-twisting crunching sound of the finger being cracked. And the audience cringes.

Walls of flats are made of paper. Characters bash through them for a very dramatic effect. Mack’s knife is seen slicing through the paper on the edge of the flat then he crashes through. Moveable staircases are used to move scene and for a starling moment.

While the world of the play is sordid and bleak, there is of course a lot of humour. Mack trying to sweet-talk his way out of tight situations is masterful as the slippery-tongued Kinnear puts on the charm and just wins over woman after woman, no matter how hardened. In one scene that is very dramatic, operatic even, the whole cast arrive with metal caps with horns—Brunhilda comes to East London!

By using Simon Stephen’s new adaptation the language is hard, harsh, contemporary and vulgar. I don’t hear the ‘c’ word. That’s interesting. There are combinations of all sorts of others, especially “fuck”. I wait for the intake of air in my audience, many of whom have never seen this before (incredible) but they go with the flow.

One scene makes me suck air. Mack has gone to his favourite brothel for some female entertainment. He chooses a young prostitute named Betty. He punches a hole in the paper of a flat. He takes her head and bends her forward so her head goes through the hole. He holds her head with one hand, flips up the back of her skirt with the other and then puts his index finger and next finger in his mouth to moisten them and then his hand disappears behind Betty. We know what he’s doing and she’s cringing. Woow.

After the intermission Mack enters tying his tie bantering with the audience that they stayed and didn’t leave. And says “Welcome to the UNITED Kingdom.” It gets applause except from the woman behind me who yells that she is independent. A few days after the referendum and the country, or at least this city is in turmoil. Yikes.

The singing from top to bottom is strong and biting. Haydn Gwynne is a mournful, tough Mrs. Peachum. Rosalie Craig as Polly wears glasses that make her look like a staid accountant. Her voice tends to be shrill for my tastes but she is no pushover. As Jenny Diver, Sharon Small is frowsy, hardened by that life and sings beautifully.

The wondrous Paule Constable has lit this so that the eyes look hollow and deadly. The lighting is harsh and shadowy.

I love every note of this abrasive musical, but wonder why there is not list of songs and who sings them. A quibble.

. We know about Brecht’s wish to alienate, shake, rattle and roll the audience into listening to the arguments and not get too close to any character. Ok theory is nice but people like to root for someone. That’s the nature of theatre. I can appreciate Brecht’s attempt. I love this hard-nosed, angry, vicious musical about how it’s a dog eat dog life. Sentiment has no place here. Liked this production a lot.

Presented by the National Theatre.

Performances Began: May 18, 2016.
I saw it: June 28, 2016.
Cast: 19; 12 men, 7 women.

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