There are people who’d probably have me shot for saying this: as much as I love the score, actually attending a production of The Threepenny Opera is not always particularly high on any list of things I’d like to do. Possibly that’s a result of having sat through rather too many po-faced classroom dissections of Brecht, or maybe it’s residual trauma from a University of Toronto School of Music production years ago which, while beautifully sung, took the ‘opera’ part of the title a little bit too seriously. It was performed on a set that could have doubled for a revival of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, and the director and cast approached the material with such humourless reverence that I think I aged five years during the three hours or so it took to sit through the show. The National Theatre‘s new revival, though, offers a “new adaptation” by Simon Shepherd, a spectacular cast, and the chance to hear the music presented in a way that closely resembles the original 1928 production, and Travelex tickets are very reasonable. And I’d forgotten, when I booked, how back-breakingly uncomfortable the seats in the Olivier can be.
Fortunately it was well worth the lower back pain. Translator/adapter Simon Stephens and director Rufus Norris both, thank God, understand that the material works best when it’s delivered with an underlying sense of fun, rather than as a straight-faced sit-up-and-eat-your-broccoli treatise on the corruption at the heart of so-called “civilised” society. This might be as close as you’ll get to Brecht-as-musical-comedy, but it works: Norris’s production is a gleefully nasty, funny/brutal ride through London’s underworld, and it’s tremendously entertaining.
It is not, though, quite pure, unadulterated Brecht and Weill. Stephens’s “new adaptation” isn’t exactly a top-down rewrite of the original, but it’s more than simply a loose (and very sweary) translation of the script. All the plot points you expect are present and correct; the biggest change is the addition of The Pink Envelope, a dossier of blackmail material on the future king which Macheath keeps in his underpants, which (spoiler alert) becomes the means by which Polly secures Macheath’s release from prison in the final scene. It certainly works, and makes for a couple of amusing sight gags, and it means the ending, in this production, makes some kind of dramatic sense – but this change also subverts Brecht’s satirical point about the inherent ludicrousness of happy endings in a certain kind of popular entertainment. Purists might scream; I enjoyed it. There’s also, because there weren’t enough great numbers in this score already, the addition of Surabaya-Johnny as an extra number for Jenny Diver. Again, it works; whether it’s necessary is an entirely different question.
It does, though, give Sharon Small a bit more to do, and that’s always welcome. Her broken Glaswegian doll of a Jenny is this production’s beating heart, and she gives Jenny a compelling combination of ferocity and fragility. She doesn’t have the greatest singing voice in the cast (her single other musical credit, at least as listed in this production’s programme, is the Donmar’s revival of The Threepenny Opera twenty-odd years ago, in which she played Polly; I saw it and have the recording, and I’d somehow completely forgotten it was her), but she’s a formidable actress, and her Surabaya-Johnny is surprisingly moving.
If Sharon Small provides the production’s heart, Rosalie Craig’s Polly Peachum is undoubtedly its brain. Craig’s Polly is a seemingly straight-laced, bespectacled school swot with an inner core of pure steel. It goes without saying that her singing is glorious – her face-off with Debbie Kurup’s feisty, funny Lucy Brown in the Jealousy Duet is by far the production’s musical highlight, with her Pirate Jenny running it a very close second – but it’s a fascinating acting performance too; for once, a character who often seems like a cardboard cutout is rendered in three dimensions. This Polly knows she’s the cleverest person in the room; she’s simultaneously warmly engaging and icily dispassionate, and from the moment Craig tears into Pirate Jenny it’s clear we’re watching a truly formidable woman. And to cap it all, she can’t half time a comic belch.
The production’s comedic tone, on the other hand, is set by the wonderful Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as Polly’s lowlife parents. Gwynne’s Mrs. Peachum is an acid-tongued, perpetually hungover riot – all sharp edges and hard angles, like Olive Oyl painted by Otto Dix (her halter-necked long red dress is a direct replica of the dress worn in Dix’s Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber). Holder’s Peachum is even better – an effete, menacing, bisexual thug in Cuban heels, a sharp suit, and a Louise Brooks bob. They’re a splendid double-act – as unpleasant as they need to be, but at the same time truly funny.
There’s superb work, in fact, right across the ensemble. Everyone hits the right tone – sour, brutal, not remotely ingratiating, but with a comic edge – and everybody understands the piece’s Epic Theatre roots, but Norris, thank God, lets his company have fun with the material, and they do. Even the smallest role is perfectly cast, and there are memorable turns from Matt Cross as a perpetually-grinning policeman, George Ikediashi as a memorably velvet-voiced ballad singer (and the messenger in the final scene), and especially from Jamie Beddard as a hilariously foul-mouthed wheelchair-bound member of Macheath’s gang. The band, under the direction of David Shrubsole, offer a tight, tart rendition of Weill’s brilliant score. Norris’s staging, like Stephens’s adaptation of the text, might not be undiluted Epic Theatre, but it knows where the material comes from: this Threepenny Opera is sometimes spectacular but never pretty, and Norris and Imogen Knight, his choreographer, keep the action flowing seamlessly (and blessedly quickly) across Vicki Mortimer’s less-simple-than-it-looks set of frames, paper screens, and scenery-shop staircases.
Which leaves Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, the centre around which the rest of the production revolves. From his first entrance – from the flies aboard a silver crescent moon, ostentatiously dry-humping Rosalie Craig’s Polly – he’s certainly a commanding presence, although he never quite offers the kind of flamboyant star turn other actors have given in the role. Kinnear’s Macheath is a grim-faced, deadpan career killer – thoroughly ruthless, but he derives pride rather than joy from his work. In a production located far closer to the present day than to 1928 – we’re repeatedly told Macheath and Brown served together in Kandahar – that’s an interesting choice; there’s more than a touch of the career politician about him, and he’s as much a villain as a hero. Much has been written of Kinnear’s rediscovery of his long-dormant singing voice, apparently more or less unused since he sang in choirs as a teenager; he’s good, and he more than does the score justice, but he’s still an actor-who-sings, and in a few of the more demanding passages his lack of vocal security is obvious. He’s hardly the first actor-who-sings-a-bit to take on this role, though, and he’s certainly a better singer than Tom Hollander, who did it at the Donmar. Kinnear’s performance is, unusually, somewhat smaller than the bigger-than-life supporting turns surrounding him; it shouldn’t work, but it does, and his quietly chilling performance provides the anchor that stops the production from degenerating into an outsized Brechtian pantomime.
It could still do with losing about ten minutes, and if you need any kind of lower back support you should probably take Ibuprofen with you – really, those seats are painful – but you can’t have everything, and in more or less every other respect Norris’s production is hugely entertaining, even if you think you might be allergic to Brecht (I should admit at this point, since I haven’t already, that while I do love this score, I’m one of those people who prefers Weill’s American period). Messing around with a beloved classic is always a gamble, and usually ill-advised; in this case, Norris and Stephens’s alternative take on the material works triumphantly – though as I said, purists may throw their hands up in horror – and you’ll go a long way before you hear a more exciting performance of this score.
Now, would it be too bourgeois of me to ask the National to make a cast album?