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A heady cocktail of Dickensian London squalor and jazz-age Berlin decadence, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1928 musical drama The Threepenny Opera has proved endlessly adaptable in its nine-decade life. “Contains filthy language and immoral behavior” runs the cautionary tagline on this swashbuckling new revival from the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris. In 2016, of course, this is more promise than warning.
Conceived by Brecht and Weill in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptman, The Threepenny Opera may have since been overtaken by Cabaret and Sweeney Todd in the premiere league of debauched musicals, but Norris and his adapter Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) have worked hard to rediscover its bracingly vulgar spirit. The cheerfully sour portraits of pimps, prostitutes and sleazy urban predators remain from the original. But topical jokes about fat-cat bankers, competitive belching sequences and jaunty musical paeans to anal sex are new additions.
A rowdy circus atmosphere pervades this boisterous production, a Felliniesque carnival of choreographed chaos that makes full use of the cavernous Olivier space and its vast revolving stage. Artfully retro but not fixed in time or place, Vicki Mortimer’s stylized set design resembles a giant child’s construction set of bare wooden frames, waltzing mobile staircases and brown paper walls that are slashed open for dramatic entrances. It appears flimsy and ramshackle, but functions like a slick technical marvel. To paraphrase Dolly Parton, it costs a lot of money to look this cheap.
Into this space Norris injects his own signature visual pageantry, including a mock-Wagnerian chorus in horned helmets, a gigantic Saint George’s flag deployed as a canvas for starkly Expressionist shadowplay and several deftly orchestrated slapstick sequences that pay homage to silent-era Hollywood. Indeed, one set-piece stunt involving a collapsing wall feels like an inspired Buster Keaton tribute.
Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful, Spectre) stars as the anti-heroic Macheath, aka Mack the Knife, a sexually incontinent East London gangster dressed in spats, sharp suit and seedy pencil mustache. He makes a memorable entrance on an illuminated moon suspended high above the stage, vigorously copulating with his new bride, Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig). But news of their impromptu wedding angers Polly’s father Jonathan Peachum (Nick Holder), a criminal mastermind who controls an army of East End street beggars. For more personal reasons, Polly’s nuptials also anger Peachum’s boozy floozy wife Celia, magnificently embodied by Haydn Gwynne, reeling and roaring like a lowlife cousin of Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous.
Peachum plots revenge on Macheath by exploiting his closeness to an old army comrade, police chief Tiger Brown (Peter de Jersey). The two men served together in Afghanistan, where it seems they committed secret war crimes, another timely twist added by Stephens. Thanks to a toxic mix of treacherous friends, powerful enemies and his own fatal weakness for prostitutes, Macheath ends up facing death on the gallows. He survives, of course, but Brecht’s sarcastically upbeat ending still serves as a jarring mockery of cozy bourgeois audience expectations, especially since Stephens spices it up with an extra sizzle of blackmail and royal sex scandal.
Woven into the drama and sporadically visible onstage, musical director David Shrubsole and his jazzy chamber orchestra play faithful versions of Weill’s rollicking, willfully discordant, sinister fairground shanties. But the inclusion of “Surabaya Johnny” from the later Brecht and Weill musical, Happy End, feels incongruous and superfluous. Stephens gives the lyrics a very British makeover, boosting the four-letter word count and amplifying the sexual innuendo. One number features the refrain “Stupid twats! Stupid twats!” Another has the gleeful chorus “The world is f—ed and life is shit.” It is fair to assume these are somewhat free translations of Brecht’s originals.
Previous adaptations have teased out a gender-bending Rocky Horror Show subtext in The Threepenny Opera, most notably Scott Elliott and Wallace Shawn’s short-lived 2006 New York revival, which starred Alan Cumming as a lascivious Macheath. But Norris and Stephens go a step further, building a closeted gay affair between Brown and Macheath into their backstory, and making Peachum a cross-dressing grotesque of ambivalent sexuality. Indeed, Holder pretty much blows everybody else offstage during his second-act scenes, channeling primetime Divine with his outlandish wig, high heels and perfectly judged comic timing.
Though he proves a competent singer and impressively nimble physical performer, Kinnear’s voice is adequate rather than arresting. More accustomed to playing thoughtful beta-males than devilish charmers, he also seems an odd choice for a diabolically dangerous womanizer like Macheath, especially in a production crowded with high-voltage performances.
Kinnear’s female co-stars are particularly strong, from the imperious Gwynne to the wily Craig to Debbie Kurup as Lucy Brown, Tiger’s daughter and Polly’s sassy love rival, played here as a booty-shaking Blaxploitation diva straight out of a Beyonce video. Typically for Norris, the ensemble cast is multiracial and commendably diverse, spanning a broad range of ages and body types. Wheelchair user Jamie Beddard, who has cerebral palsy, also plays a prominent role, his slurred speech priming the audience for one of the best jokes of the night.
Close to three hours in length, this two-act revival gets a little bogged down during its sprawling first half, but the riotous comic energy becomes a joyous crescendo in the more lean and dynamic final hour. Serious Brechtsperts may find the self-conscious nods to the author’s famous alienation techniques (including castmembers bellowing “Scene change!” and “Interval!”) a little clumsy, and the relentless profanity slightly forced. To me, however, they felt like a blast of refreshingly foul air, hinting at the disruptive punk iconoclasm that first inspired this classic of 20th century drama.
Venue: Olivier, National Theatre, London
Cast: Rory Kinnear, Rosalie Craig, Nick Holder, Haydn Gwynne, Peter de Jersey, Debbie Kurup, George Ikediashi, Sharon Small
Director: Rufus Norris
Playwright: Simon Stephens, adapted from the play by Bertolt Brecht
Music: Kurt Weill
Lyrics: Bertolt Brecht
Set & costume designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Choreographer: Imogen Knight
Music supervisor: David Shrubsole
Presented by National Theatre
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