News of funding cuts for some of the UK’s most iconic arts institutions last summer, most notably the English National Opera, may have spurred creatives to think more urgently about diversifying their productions and trying to lure in more varied crowds.
Some were lucky enough to avoid major disruption: the Royal Opera House managed to escape with a dull nip compared to the bludgeoning of its peers. Still, one may assume that the pressure to create new, exciting work is at the forefront of the ROH agenda for the upcoming seasons. Perhaps then, John Fulljames’s entirely new staging of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s giddy, operatic satire Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is the way forward.
Born out of disillusionment of the tired, formulaic operas being performed, which celebrated the exploration of pure love as their ultimate agenda, Weill and Brecht worked to deconstruct and subvert opera by producing a new work that questioned the status quo. Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny depicts love as a commodity, presenting a legal system enforced by criminals and depicts a society that promotes the ideology of ‘everything is permitted’. Though not as successful as their other collaboration on Threepenny Opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has had a significant impact on popular culture, including The Doors and David Bowie covering its famous ‘Alabama Song’, thus giving it exemplary staying power.
The production has the ability to transform, as is made clear as soon as one enters the foyer: there are slogans beaming at you on various LCD screens and staff t-shirts conveying ticket and drink prices with a boastful wink. The slogans have an Orwellian sensibility and credit must be made to the marketing team who have instilled a great sense of fun and intrigue. They have managed to blatantly communicate real purchase possibilities without offense by alluding to the play itself, embracing the essence of consumerism that is so heavily critiqued by Weill and Brecht. It’s a fun start to the performance.
Once seated, the Mahagonny propaganda continues. On the stage screen are various phrases purporting to the fake country we are about to visit, including jibes about press receiving free tickets and no heckling or love-making permitted. The creative team have have lifted the experience to make it interactive and inclusive and it works.
The play begins in a sequence that could be lifted from a David Lynch film, with three fugitives traveling aboard a truck scampering down a highway, highlighted with severe spotlights harshly shining upon it in the otherwise black night; text is projected onto the screen with a 3D colour outline in front, reminiscent of 1930s Grindhouse films. When the truck breaks down, the fugitives resolve to create the pleasure city, Mahagonny and set out to attract the masses. Once established by whores and gamblers, the suits with purposeless lives begin to sidle in, but it is the arrival of four Alaskan lumberjacks who sing of the pleasures awaiting them that sets the city’s downfall into rapid motion.
The production enjoys a lively, tongue in cheek tone that permeates into the wonderful set design from Es Devlin. For the first act, the truck is utilised to house a number of scenes, transitioning with ease from an American-style cabaret bar to an aeroplane. In the second act, the stage becomes cluttered with multi-coloured shipping containers that evoke a sense of play, appearing almost like Lego blocks. In true Brecht style, this juxtaposes acutely with the savage action taking place upon them, bringing home his didactic approach. Sudden tonal shifts, jaunty plot devices and surreal sequences of fantasy make it impossible to become swept away in the action. Toward the end, an actress begins filming the audience, whose faces are projected onto the containers to critique the role of the observer; a trick often seen in the cinema of Michael Haneke, perhaps Brecht’s contemporary.
A lively and imaginative production that is heavy-handed in its depiction of depravity and debauchery, from LED naked bodies to a grotesque sequence of a man eating himself to death; Mahagonny’s downfall is greatly and gorily detailed.
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is playing at the Royal Opera House until 4 April. For tickets and more information, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Clive Barda.