The Threepenny Opera (NT Live)

  • The Threepenny Opera (NT Live)

6/21/17 (Tues), Tokyo

A dark sleaze-fest by Rufus Norris. There was no papering over the cruelty or cynicism of the show, though I could have done without the unnecessarily crude rendering of the lyrics in English by author Simon Stephens (lots of shits and fucks). Vulgarities abound in the book as well, such as the fingers up the butt and a line about cheese that I wish I could forget. Macheath remains the two-, three- or more-timer who has made Polly his latest wife, raising the wrath of (1) her parents, who want him dead (he was also shtupping her mother), (2) his other wife Lucy (he tries to convince her that he wants Polly only for her brains), and (3) Lucy’s father, Inspector Tiger Brown, who as Mack’s former collaborator (and apparently lover) feels betrayed. Another lover Jenny is bribed to give away his whereabouts, and the situation deteriorates from there. The show and its focus on London’s low-life were conceived by Brecht basically as an excuse for his anti-capitalist screed, which remains hard to take seriously as social critique. But it’s good fun to watch. 

The set was largely flimsy wooden platforms and steps, with occasional additions such as the cranes holding various characters and the big moon lowered from on high with the king. The cartoonish set included props marked with labels such as The Pink Envelope or Drugs, blood as strips of red ribbon (including one spurting out of a guy’s derriere), impressive vomit projectile and Groucho-type moustaches. It was a circus-like atmosphere reveling in its artifices. German expressionism is the clear inspiration here despite the London setting. The music was thrillingly played by a shabby orchestra, making the best case possible for Weill’s relentless score.

The National’s standard diverse casting actually worked here, especially among Mack’s hapless cronies. For once, this seemed a talented cast rather than tokenism. I winced when a guy with cerebral palsy was rolled on in a wheelchair, but he was in fact a big plus. His disability made his lines (largely expletives) effective, and he fired back nicely when Mack mocked his hard-to-understand speech. As Mack, Rory Kinnear isn’t a natural choice for the role and didn’t immediately strike me as threatening in the opening tableau with that pencil moustache and campy leer. But his unflappable creepiness made it all work. He is a surprisingly strong singer, and his charisma made his appeal to women believable. I don’t remember from previous versions his unlikely sexual history with the inspector, whose daughter he subsequently defiled, but it worked in context.

Nick Holder was pitch perfect as a rotund Mr Peachum. He was puzzlingly coiffed like Buster Brown and wearing high heels in the second half, which made no sense at all, but he was devastating in his delivery and right in tune with the acerbic tone of the piece. He was the most memorable among the supporting characters. The women were uniformly good: Haydn Gwynne was a wonderfully expressionistic Mrs Peachum, Sharon Small a tremendous Jenny (including a moving “Surabaya Johnny”, added for this production) and Rosalie Craig a ruthless Polly, particularly good in her duet with Debbie Kurup’s Hispanic-looking Lucy Brown. The director said specifically that he wanted to make strong female characters, which would seem to go naturally with the material. Still, they did well by him.

The filming focused on the wrong parts at times, causing us to miss much of what was happening elsewhere on stage. That was especially true in the opening scene, with the camera on the narrator rather than the small tableaux where the scene was being played out. I would have appreciated more wide shots; the NT should be expert at this by now.

This is too eclectic to be a definitive version of the show, if any such creature exists, but it’s a worthy interpretation. If nothing else, I learned the British pronunciation of Threepenny (“thruh-punny”).

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