Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera of 1928, itself inspired by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera written two centuries earlier, is robust enough to be presented in a variety of ways. It can feature operatic voices, as did the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013, or be presented as a piece of musical theatre. A performance can also be shaded in an infinite number of ways within this broad dichotomy.
Simon Stephens’ new English version leans towards the musical theatre end of the spectrum, but it does reveal a firm grasp of what the piece is really about. As a result, if this is probably not an evening for someone looking for a first rate operatic performance, it can make for an enjoyable, and sometimes thought provoking, theatrical experience.
In the programme, Iain Sinclair describes the timelessness of the East End, suggesting that as one walks its streets today ‘the past is a palpable element’. Following this vein, Stephens’ new adaptation does not explicitly update the action to the present day (although the coronation in question is no longer Queen Victoria’s) because it is unnecessary to do so. Going by Sinclair’s thesis, the original characters in their original setting are already, in a sense, contemporaneous. In fact, Stephens emphasises their universality by seeing the costumes they wear cross a variety of eras. The policemen’s uniforms look late Victorian while there are also allusions to the 1920s Berlin of Brecht and Weill. The clothes of the prostitutes in the brothel might have looked equally at home in The Kit Kat Club in Cabaret, while Celia Peachum’s hair and dress suggest that she has just stepped out of an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting.
The language represents one area where there is a clear updating, and it can be very strong. To an extent this is understandable because whatever words were just on the edge of acceptability in either 1728 or 1928 now have to be converted into far ruder ones to achieve the same overall effect. However, while in this context the use of such strong language is not offensive, it is not particularly funny either. Bawdy humour derives from an air of suggestion and sense of double entendre, but when everything is proclaimed so explicitly there is nothing left to laugh at.
Rufus Norris’ staging is certainly Brechtian, with the mechanics of the scene changes being clearly visible as characters help with, and even comment on, them. Similarly, the orchestra is situated on the stage throughout, with various players, dressed as minstrels and Pierrots, walking about as they perform. When Celia vomits she uses a fire extinguisher to produce the spew for her, and Macheath and Polly Peachum make somewhat rough love on a moon that descends from the ceiling, contrasting the dream with the sordid reality.
Rory Kinnear has a strong presence and good voice, even if his projection of Macheath as a distinguished, as opposed to loveable, rogue means we do not always root for him in spite of everything he has done. Overall, however, despite there being many pleasing voices and performances (Nick Holder as Peachum and Haydn Gwynne as Celia stand out), this production feels more timid than it was perhaps intended to be.
Operatic voices, simply by virtue of their strength and volume, provide a greater foundation upon which to create an overpowering experience. Here, with the exception of the brilliant George Ikediashi as The Balladeer, more slender voices combine with a large space to fill visually to generate an atmosphere that feels not as anarchic as it might. The evening fares far better, in fact, when it can actually play on a certain sense of restraint and understatement. For example, Macheath and Jenny Diver’s duet feels bittersweet in its tenderness, while the raid that follows works well because of the overarching control that is exerted over the choreography.