Bertolt Brecht: hated by students who don’t understand him, loved by the rest of us who still don’t really understand him. The Threepenny Opera is perhaps his most theatrical ‘play with music’, but it’s a brave choice for the National Theatre to present. Simon Stephens is adapting the original translation from Brecht, with Kurt Weill’s musical numbers intact, and Rufus Norris still looking for that first hit in his Artistic Director position. The Threepenny Opera might go some way towards that, though it’s a slightly shaky if well-meaning rendition.
Set in the slums of Victorian London, Captain Macheath (Rory Kinnear) is an underworld crime boss with a sexual appetite for anything that moves. He’s made some enemies though, not least the deceitful entrepreneur Mr Peachum (Nick Holder), whose daughter Polly (Rosalie Craig) has just married Mac in secret. Stephens’s adaptation is very faithful to Brecht’s metatheatrical story, and he has updated the dialogue and lyrics to fit a more modern palate. Granted, this works and it draws parallels between both London’s past and present. More can be gleaned from Polly’s rise to power than previously, though even Stephens is not averse to throwing in perhaps one punchline too many.
Kinnear is effective if not completely memorable as Mac. He certainly looks the part, and he’s got a fair set of pipes on him to boot, but he’s slightly overshadowed by the larger-than-life supporting performances here. Holder is a rotund, rambunctious ‘antagonist,’ gleefully plotting his enemy’s downfall in a wickedly entertaining role. Polly could be such a wet, redundant character with no life blood, but here Stephens and Craig really bring her into the twenty-first century, in a sparky, spirited turn – quietly destroying her spouse’s empire through sheer organisation. Elsewhere Haydn Gwynne is hilarious as Peachum’s wife, desperately pining for Mac herself. Peter de Jersey is splendid as Chief Inspector Tiger Brown, always entering a scene by running at full pelt. Finally, if it’s broad comedy you’re after, look for Matt Cross as Officer Smith, casually taking every scene from his peers through sheer energy. It’s a strong cast that can make up for any inconsistencies elsewhere.
Vicki Mortimer once again brings extraordinary to the ordinary, and her skeletal ‘play-within-play-within-play’ design has those desired effects of nonchalance and budget that Brecht thrives on. We start ever so well, with the baritoned Balladeer (George Ikediashi) taking us through ‘Mack The Knife’ (yes that one) in the show’s most illustrious musical number – puppet-like, cartoonish, buffoonish and incredibly slick. It’s so good that the rest of the production is still trying to catch up with it by the end. You get the feeling Norris is making his Brechtian style more accessible than true. Sure, the metatheatre is there is in abundance, but the satire isn’t very cutting. Norris uses the revolve to highlight every aspect of the door-frame sets, and if you’re of the belief that Brecht is only placards, you’ll feel right at home – it’s like a child has gone mad with a label maker. Elsewhere we laugh at Peachum’s vagrant business rather than chide it, and cheer for the deus ex machina ending rather than howl at the indignity. It’s perhaps slightly dumbed down from what it could be. Norris’s musical direction seems to falter too, as his creative apparels from the opening number are too infrequent from that point on. These parts tend to drag slightly.
Overall, this is a well-meaning, intrinsically crafted, very funny production with a stellar cast. Stephens’s translation allows for a well-adjusted update, but I’m not convinced by Norris’s efforts here. It’s that little bit too safe, which makes it that bit too ordinary – something you could never associate with Bertolt Brecht.
The Threepenny Opera is playing at the National Theatre until 1 October. For tickets and more information, see the National Theatre website. Photo: Richard H Smith