I went to see the Royal National Theatre of The UKs production of THREEPENNY OPERA whilst over in London, performed in the huge Olivier Theatre. Directed by Rufus Norris, the production was spectacular, had a guttural and appropriately harsh translation from Simon Stephens , a fantastic band and some full blooded acting from the cast, led by Rory Kinnear, Haydyn Gwynne and an amazing performance from Nick Holder as Peachum. Full use was maðe of revolves, lifts and moving staircases and the almost continuously moving set designed by Vicki Mortimer had the right atmosphere. In the immediate charged atmosphere of Brexit, chaos in parliament and the polarisation in the populus, the play was incredibly topical. There were some raw, bold moments. And yet….
Every decision we make when we create a piece of theatre has ramifications. Of course this does not mean that the director, design team and actors do not have to make decisions. If they did not, then they would most likely make a piece which was flabby and rudderless. But every time you make a strong decision, the creative team have to understand that in making it, they cut themselves off from some amazing possibilities.
Ultimately, as professional as this work was, it followed the route of spectacle, something I would define as an attempt to avoid the real issues by some distracting visuals. The spectacle has power, ‘shock and awe’ etc but too often it misses something. Too much set moving in crucial songs occurred time and time again, diluting the power of performer and song. For instance, Surubaya Johnny, one of the most famous songs in the whole piece, was accompanied by one of the largest scenic shifts. During MacHeath and Tiger Browns Soldier’s Song, really excellently performed , sandbags swung down from the audience on ropes and took me away from the emotional movement of the song. There were many annoying things like this which distracted us from the guts of this story and that the characters were in pain, vicious, trapped and angry. This process of spectacle reminded me a little of how often directors like to embroider plays, most particularly Shakespeare, in order, they believe, to keep the audience engaged. I felt there was something of this with the songs…. a feeling they were too long and needed ‘dressing up’ a bit.
The polarity of good and evil is incredibly important in Brecht’s work. More emphasis on this polarity would have helped to give the play more depth and hence make the second half more interesting to watch. By the end of Part one all the magazines seemed to have been emptied because the emotional level was merely anger and violence. Back to polarities: Brecht’s line in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, ‘ Terrible is the Temptation to do good’, suggests that oppressed people in a shitty world struggle to perform good deeds because the fear-charged atmosphere in which they exist mitigates against good action. In Threepenny Opera there is a whole song dedicated to this polarity of trying to act morally in an immoral and cruel world. I would have liked to have seen more of those moments of conflict between the atmosphere of savagery and moments, or attempted moments, of goodness.
This polarity is not sentimental but a reality. In this production however, no character even thought of doing anything kind or loving for one moment. It never crossed their mind. The whole world was twisted and perverse and the characters operated within it. Of course I know this is the point, but it is not the whole story. If it were, then the play, like the production, would ultimately be unsustainable. Polly especially becomes corrupted and gets sucked in to being as criminal as her parents. She changes. We needed to see that journey more. By making her strong from the start, we ultimately got no sense of movement , and by that I mean emotional movement. So although Rosalie Craig gave a strong performance it didn’t really for me go anywhere. This stasis was in all the characters. Some people might argue it was a ‘Brechtian’ choice to give the characters no development and to keep them permanently as harsh types. But as a result of this character stasis, the production became for me tedious after the interval. It fully became a spectacle at a time when it needed to be finding some depth.
Let’s take Mcheath. Now it is important for me that we do not sympathise with him, or find him charming but in his final song on the scaffold he has got to be fearful, imploring as well as defiant. Here was another moment I would have preferred the song to have been focussed on his feelings rather than the giant staircase up which he was progressing. There is a lot of emotional movement in what might be his final moments as he loses power and the only people left for him are the audience . Despite Rory Kinnear’s bullish and energetic performance, there was absolutely no flexibility, or if there was, then I did not see it. I suspect this might have been a directorial decision but I could be wrong.
A pivotal scene in the second half was the scene with the Police Officer Smith whom McHeath tries to bribe in order to help him escape. Much as it might be appealing to assume that all policemen are corrupt, a different and more powerful choice might have been made which would have pulled this scene into something more morally dense. The policeman shocked by the corruption of his superior is ripe pickings for McHeath and Officer Hill succumbs . There is an emotional movement here. When we discover our heroes have feet of clay this is a ripe moment for compromise or corruption.
In the final moment of this recent production, and this is a different point, there was an implication that McHeath had an affair with a prince of the realm and so he is saved. The final moment had him kissing a prince in front of the entire cast. This from a man who has robbed, raped, murdered, scarred and debased women. There is a lot more gay subtext, made very explicit in this version which was sometimes effective, but this final moment I found rather offensive in what is at the end of the day a political cabaret which is supposed to be saying something. What was this final tableaux saying ? Here before us, is the ultimate corruption? All this corruption is down to repressed gay sex? I am sure that was not what was intended but that was how it appeared. When I looked up John Willett’s translation, the alternative ending of Mack getting his reprieve has one target only; to make the audience feel that with a happy ending they can go off satisfied. It’s a comment on the audience and a jibe against us, not a further complication of the morality of the plot.