Review: The Threepenny Opera @ The National ***

There are two forms of theatre with which I am generally less than enamoured: dance and opera. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, such as Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic. But there are others which justify my dislike: Macbeth at the Young Vic. As the title suggests, The Three Penny  is an opera. Fortunately for the National, it is an exception to the rule, though mainly for the fact that it’s mocking it’s very form.

The opening prologue sets the scene: the dark streets of London Town, where crime, vice and lechery are given free rein. Enter stage left Macheath, the man at the centre of such sin. A renowned murderer, we are told of his ‘accomplishments’ through a familiar song: ‘Mack the Knife’. His London is a bleak one and Vicki Mortimer’s vision is stark. We see the bones of London: frames of buildings spin round, maze like. Pieces of scenery are wheeled on and off with ‘Flag for scene 17’ scrawled on them, mocking the form itself. Although can we stop with the set falling please. National, Old Vic and Barbican, I’m looking at you. Peachum’s darlings aka beggars are dehumanised, bags covering their heads. The other characters’ outfits mock the art form, with stylised make up for Peachum and horns adorning almost everyone in the penultimate scene. One notable effect lacking is the stage blood, which we have become so accustomed to. Guts and gore are replaced with red coloured wool, pulled out of costumes. We’ll come back its ‘effectiveness’ later…

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The cast of The Threepenny Opera. Photo by: Richard Hubert Smith. Source: The National Theatre

Originally written by Brecht, the opera has been translated for the version by Simon Stephens. And by translated, I mean both into English and into modern English. Expect a profanity laden narrative, which has some brilliant updates: ‘twat’, ‘shite’, ‘prick’ among others. These obviously get a few giggles from the audience, but lose their shock effect after the first couple of utterances. Of the songs, only a few really stand out (although, again, it’s an opera). Polly’s first song about the guns for one, and the song which closes the first half.

Rory Kinnear is excellent as Macheath: rough, raspy and relentless in his energy. He is able to command both an air of sheer malice and calmness which is terrifying. My only qualm is the characterisation. At the end, the audience is given a choice: condemn or show mercy. But to be honest, we didn’t see enough to gain a real impression of this character’s violence. Certainly, Kinnear’s mentality asserts this, but less in his physicality and action. Aside from the opening scene, we only see two other moments of violence. And none of these are shocking. The replacing of blood with wool removed any shock or disgust at his deeds. In fact it elicited laughter at points, removing the jeopardy from key scenes. At the end of the play, therefore, I didn’t not feel invested enough in his character to care of his fate.

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Rosalie Craig as Polly, and Rory Kinnear as Macheath. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith. Source: The National Theatre

Other commendable performances include Rosalie Craig as Polly, who is a revelation. The beautiful quality of her voice is entrancing, particularly at points where Kinnear wanders into Phil Mitchell territory, intentionally so I imagine. Her composure and eloquence in the scenes where we may assume her character is losing is brilliant. Nick Holder’s Mr Peachum is actually more scary than Kinnear’s Macheath. Likewise, we only see one scene of violence, though it gets a surprisingly visceral reaction from the audience. Denied of any physical violence with Macheath, when Peachum tortures a character for information as to his whereabouts, we gasp. With a grin like the Cheshire Cat, he smiles and smiles and plays the villain in spades. Finally, Peter De Jersey’s Tiger Brown is a bag of energy, darting around the stage and crashing through walls, while George Ikediashi is an ethereal narrator. Flying in on a moon, he takes the audience on the journey of the play, a deus ex machine character with charm and cheek.

Verdict: cracking fun at the expense of its own form, this opera is so tongue in cheek that it should almost take things a bit more seriously.

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