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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

After thirty years since its last full production, Rufus Norris brings The Threepenny Opera back to the NT Olivier in a cast led by Rory Kinnear, Haydn Gwynne, Sharon Small, Rosalie Craig and Nick Holder.


Rufus Norris brings the Weill, Brecht, Hauptmann team’s The Threepenny Opera back to the NT Olivier after thirty years in a cast led by Rory Kinnear, Haydn Gwynne, Sharon Small, Rosalie Craig and Nick Holder.

Norris’s music-theatre and other strands – the very elements that got him appointed and caused brickbats – here come of age. Perhaps there’ll be some for whom Norris will never do good: it’s irrelevant to what he achieves here and with luck promises.

Norris also makes choices around the early evolution of the work’s production. Even in the three years from its 1928 premiere Brecht took over the collaborative project turning his colleagues into appendages, radically altering tone. For instance Macheath was sung in 1928 by a dashing operetta tenor, but by 1931 he’d been grunged down to a balding stocky short man of forty, a power women respond to if not cute. In fact bar baldness it’s Brecht himself – forty most of his adult life.

Enter Kinnear straight after the superbly punchy eight-strong band. Weill’s genius scissors his neo-classical training right across his melodic swing, almost square-snipped jazz; it cuts asymmetrically through the great standards. Kinnear rasps rather magnificently through songs and bodies, two of whom, woman and man slump over hoardings with red-streamered Brechtian-style blood from their backs. This Macheath’s vicious then; though nothing in the original suggests he kills women deliberately, there’s an accident later and certainly a blood-string of ruined women. Kinnear’s a hunch of menace and braggadocio, a perfect 1931 version.

Nick Holder’s Peachum struts on magnificently, a paterfamilias feminized introducing a sexual ramp-up which goes all the way to the top as we discover. His opening scene boasts a sample of his array of 800 beggars to bring down London when needed. These disport themselves in particular catchment areas playing types to elicit pity: for instance maimed veteran or mentally distressed. So in the first scene Filch a new man applies to slot into role. One recalls Graeae’s 2014 production with a disability-led cast and it’s clear Norris rightly feels the time’s pressure to respond. It’s a pity he couldn’t go further.

One actor Jamie Beddard playing Matthias a Macheath gang member is speech-impaired and with true shock Macheath finally rounds on him – as he does all the loyal gang, earning their un-Brechtian alienation – mocking him for his voice. It’s a chilling moment but there’s not enough of these, and for all the talk of Otto Dix’s paintings Graeae’s initiative is lent token reference here where it should now direct active decisions.

Peachum’s wife and daughter prove more than a match for either him or Macheath. Haydn Gwynne vamps as Celia the woman whose overt rail-sliding sexuality and openly gartered lust for Macheath doesn’t prevent her chiding her daughter Polly. Rosalie Craig’s been sent to the best elocution schools, making her youthful sexuality and brilliance with criminal strategy – as well as accounting – all the more dramatic. Her appearance is a coup: a descent cradled in a literal honeyed moon with Macheath noisily, painfully taking her virginity (‘he hurt me… but not in a bad way’ she informs her mother frankly). Craig apologizes and declares she’ll soon be more game. It’s as well we don’t dwell on her represented age. Craig’s voice is pure lyric piercing everything gently.

Gwynne’s earthy but soaring vocals plunges the greatest knowledge of Macheath of all his women; she poises classy against chassis with residual dignity despite her overt under-satisifed sexuality. That counterpoises the other ex-lover Jenny Diver, worn-out Sharon Small, whose voice smokes sex and despair, abandoned at seventeen after a miscarriage to a life of prostitution, particularly in her imported song from Happy End. Small burns through ‘Surabaya Johnny’ like a cigarette paper; when she finishes, you feel there’s nothing left of her but ash on the wind.

‘Surabaya Johnny’ is also a model of what translator Simon Stephens has raunched up throughout his treatment. The original refrain ‘take that cigarette out of your mouth, you dog’ (‘das hund’) has always been altered to the more effective ‘rat’, meaning the same culturally in English. The cigar-champing Brecht however might approve of the far more effective update: ‘Wipe that smile off your face, you shite!’ Stephens shows particularly well in lyrics. His other updates are felicitous too and in one key moment make astonishingly good sense of the ending.

This strand, the other route where Macheath’s been led by his pants in a sexually opposite direction unusually might prove his salvation and it’s – as it were – consummately if controversially worked out. Peter de Jersey’s Chief Inspector Tiger Brown – in superb ringing voice – is a mate in all senses from their time together in Kandahar, where they massacred women and children, and shared everything including bed. This makes that loyalty the more believable and there’s their friend from Windsor….

The peeling back of plot and denouement – involving fitted stairs and a black Austin A7 with a Royal personage and un-missable coup – is facilitated by Vicki Mortimer’s masterly versatile set that like a cardboard city deconstructs, using the drum revolve openly and rather thrillingly. Frames stretch with paper people walk through, one collapses over an unflinching Kinnear, and a revolve and rapid Brechtian backstage glimpse. As one educationalist remarked of the 2009 Warner/Oliver Mother Courage, Brecht’s techniques often work well on everyone but Brecht. Not here though, where the perfect analogue for Dix and 1920s semi-abstracts craft a set of paper towers which don’t call too much attention to themselves as Brechtian over-writes, though various notices are scrawled elegantly, and both Kinnear and Small shout respectively ‘scene change’ and ‘interval’.

The rationale for Macheath’s curious loyalties is clarified – a swaggering defiant last visit to the brothel en route to escape (organised by Polly) ends not only in arrest and warning then betrayal from Diver but the accidental slaying of young Betty whom he’s forcibly rogered.

It’s piquant to reconcile this vividly cocksure (as he’s called) compulsive behaviour with almost sensitive homoeroticsm elsewhere (even with men Macheath swaggers), but this production drives through a perfect motive for a major narrative strand. Brown finally deserts Macheath perhaps unreasonably for seducing his very active daughter Lucy, whose Debbie Kurup matches Craig in a girl-on-girl scrap vocally and taloned recalling the soprano fights in the Handel operas parodied by Gay in 1728. One also recalls this was the year of George II’s coronation (‘Zadok the Priest’ et al), so cleverness and danger involving royalty requires authentic re-ignition.

Will Polly stand by her man or leave him to salvage her newly-governed empire? Will the scaffold end in Jonathan Miller’s notorious solution of 1984 (no happy end at all)? All these are happily possible ends. Despite liberties taken and opportunities mutedly groped at, there are no weak links in this production. All it lacks is Brecht’s foot on the accelerator of that A7, critiquing bank-bust capitalism. Here that critique could so easily savage the disablist agenda currently endured by many as one symptom of our times and proof we need Brecht more than ever. But this is still the most satisfying, pitch-perfect Threepenny Opera of our times.