Given its status as bona fide classic of 20th Century theatre, The Threepenny Opera is revived surprisingly infrequently on the UK stage. This makes Rufus Norris’s major new National Theatre production, staged in the Olivier with a new adaptation by Simon Stephens, particularly welcome. However, the end results, though not without some strong elements, don’t prove ideal.
Adapted from John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht and Weill’s tale of the murderous Macheath, his seduction of Polly Peachum, and his interactions with the fellow ne’er-do-wells of East London (including Polly’s on-the-make parents) retains its vigour and weirdness nearly 90 years on. Exploring the intersections of criminality, capitalism and corruption in a way that feels both specific and timeless, the piece deserves a big, sardonic, acidic staging (in part to overcome some of its structural shortcomings), and sometimes Norris and his company provide it here.
From its opening moments, this production strives for a broad circus-cum-cabaret spirit, one that’s evident both in the contributions of David Shrubsole’s onstage band, and in some of the casting, including the presence of George Ikediashi, known for his drag creation Le Gateau Chocolat. Ikediashi effortlessly commands a big stage here as the Balladeer, with a great opening “Mack the Knife”.
Indeed, the most memorable moments in Norris’s production are almost all musical ones: a testament to the enduring vibrancy of Weill’s score. Not all of the company are great singers like Ikediashi, but most of them succeed in putting the songs across. However, they do this despite, not because of, many of the staging decisions. Norris, who’s directed Cabaret (and who even shares his surname with Christopher Isherwood’s eponymous train-changer), might seem a perfect director for Brecht/Weill, but he too often seems to be falling back on his usual staging tics here (ones familiar from his recent productions of Everyman and wonder.land, and even his 2005 Gael Garcia Bernal-starring Blood Wedding) rather than engaging freshly or perceptively with the material.
It’s becoming all too easy to spot the hallmarks of a Norris production: whether it’s his annoying habit of lining up of the actors in a row on the stage; his penchant for sets involving stairs and scaffolding (often wheeled on by the cast); or his affection for positioning the actresses in silly poses at various points. (At times it looks like Norris isn’t so much directing his casts these days as displaying them.) Hadyn Gwynne, as a libidinous Mrs. Peachum, gets a great entrance here, wrapping her amazing legs around some steps, and she sings strikingly throughout, but she’s forced to spend so much time facing out and posturing that the performance becomes slightly embarrassing.
Norris likes mess on stage, but his productions lack the consistently dynamic messy quality of, say, Deborah Warner’s (who, incidentally, directed a fantastic Mother Courage and Her Children in this auditorium a few years ago, with a phenomenal Fiona Shaw in the lead). With Warner, you feel as if the whole production might collapse at any given moment, and her spontaneous, loose approach generates a dramatic tension and excitement. Norris’s work, by comparison, can just look amateurish. The meagre “alienation” elements here, such as the actors barking “Scene change!” and “Interval!”, feel like obvious, thrown-in afterthoughts, giving the production a sense of Brecht-by-numbers. Even Vicki Mortimer’s deliberately spare set has a second-hand appearance, with a moon that looks suspiciously like it’s been lifted straight from her design for the 2003 NT production of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers.
A further flaw is Simon Stephens’s new version, which is predictably profane and boringly blunt in its language. Given some of his past work, it’s not too much of a surprise to find Stephens upping the “filth” factor of the source to the max (sample dialogue exchange: “Fuck off, you fucking fuck”) but a lot of his additions feel both cheap and thuddingly repetitious. (You’ll lose count of the amount of times that we hear that Macheath’s “cock” has got him into trouble.) Combined with the tackiness of elements of the staging (Macheath and Polly introduced mid-coitus, for example), the production often sounds as ugly as it looks, and its attempts at slapstick humour are awkward and poorly timed throughout.
Luckily, some of the cast have the talent and the technique to rise above these shortcomings. Nick Holder’s Peachum is a portrait of criminal opportunism performed with eccentricity, menace and relish. Sharon Small brings Jenny to brash, oddly valiant life, and gets an additional song (“Surabaya Johnny”, brought in from Brecht/Weill’s 1929 Happy End) for her pains. Though underused, Rosalie Craig, as Polly, is superb, the actress contributing the kind of wit, bite and dramatic intensity that she brought to the equally demanding musical material of her starring role in Tori Amos’s and Samuel Adamson’s sublime The Light Princess in 2013. Craig’s delivery of “Barbara Song” is the production’s emotional high spot (as well as one of its most effectively staged moments), with the actress digging deeply into Polly’s sexual thrall to Macheath.
The vividness of these performances is a considerable bonus because Rory Kinnear’s Macheath is a disappointment. A great “everyman” actor, Kinnear has some fine moments here, such as a bitingly ironic walk to the gallows, and he sings creditably throughout. Yet he lacks the magnetism — the sheer charismatic craziness and animal energy — to make his Macheath a consistently dynamic presence and thereby match the cartoonishness of Norris’s conception. The actor’s lack of allure in this role is particularly problematic given the inordinate amount of emphasis that Stephens’s adaptation places on Macheath’s sexual prowess (which here includes an affair with his soldier comrade, played by Peter de Jersey).
The miscasting of Kinnear is a central flaw in Norris’s production, which, for all its crudity and provocations, doesn’t get to the heart of the material. There’s one truly great production in the Olivier at the moment: Yaël Farber’s sensational staging of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs. In terms of atmosphere, intelligence and exhilarating theatricality, this tatty take on The Threepenny Opera sadly doesn’t come close.
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The Threepenny Opera is booking at the National Theatre until 1 October.