Review: The Threepenny Opera ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 14, 2010

Review: The Threepenny Opera

Fame, so the proverb goes, is a calamity. To be sure, it's the kind of calamity that looks like a privilege, a disaster that masquerades as respect. But consider what happens when perhaps the greatest calamity of all befalls a writer and he turns into an adjective. A lifetime of work - diverse, idiosyncratic, speculative, contradictory, above all contingent - freezes into a single epithet. The words Chekhovian, Kafkaesque, Dantesque, Pinteresque, Beckettian, Shakespearean, become a deadly row of bullets the critic shoots into the blank wall of cultural regard.

It's part of the endless conflict between the cultural machine and art. Both need each other - without the cultural machine the artist might as well hide in a box, and without the artist, the cultural machine would have no reason to exist. Yet both are mutually hostile, waging a covert war that neither can really win. The machine likes its cultural product categorisable, recognisable, marketable: above all, it needs art to be tame. Artists - which is to say, artists who make any art worth the candle - resist cultural pigeonholes with every fibre of their being.

Naturally, the cultural machine likes its artists best when they are dead. "The words of a dead man," said Auden in his panegyric to Yeats, "Are modified in the guts of the living." Hence the faux reverence for Shakespeare, which viciously attacks any attempt to release the living artist from the half-life of monumental fame. Within this is a kind of love, but if it were transposed to actual relationships, it would be the possessive obsession in which the loved object is jealously locked in a dark room. Yet this transformation of living art to cultural monument is an inevitable and necessary process: despite its catastrophic side-effects, without cultural memory the artist and her work would be forgotten. And, as much as the erasure of radicality, this digestion can mean a renewal of vitality. I am the kind of audience member who always prays for the latter.

So, to turn to Brecht, who perhaps more than most others remains locked inside his adjective. "Brechtian" has become shorthand for many things: most immediately, it calls up the theory of Verfremdungseffekt, often misunderstood as an abjuration of feeling in favour of didactic intellection, which itself summons a kind of dour Marxist theatre about tractor drivers. Brecht is, quite rightly, regarded as the exemplary political playwright, and perhaps the most influential of the 20th century: but what is most often forgotten about Brecht - especially in the English language - is that he is a poet.

The Threepenny Opera is an early work of Brecht's. At the time of its writing, Brecht was 29; he had just had his first success with Man Equals Man and was working with the politically brilliant but financially unstable director Piscator, who first conceived of the idea of Epic Theatre. Brecht was then in the early stages of his encounter with Marx: he was yet to meet Walter Benjamin, was on the threshold of writing the first of his learning plays and was midway through his opera Mahagonny. The year before, he had released his first book of poems, The Manual of Piety (Die Hauspostille).

The Threepenny Opera, chaotically scrambled together with Kurt Weill's score and sets by Caspar Neher from Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, was the work of a young man in extreme creative flux. The premiere famously teetered on the brink of disaster: the dress rehearsal reportedly went down like a lead balloon, and the first night audience sat unmoved through the first act, until suddenly something caught fire and they broke out into wild applause. And thus was born the biggest theatrical hit of the Weimar Republic.

Ever since, The Threepenny Opera has been something of an embarrassment to hardcore Marxist interpreters of Brecht. Its greatest fans were the bourgeoisie whom it supposedly attacked: they liked nothing better than having their greed, hypocrisy and amorality so entertainingly exposed, and no one could demonstrate that they were any the better for it. Yet Brecht never disowned it; rather, he remained somewhat obsessed with it, continually fiddling with the text and even writing a film version.

This alone shows that Brecht the poet always dominated Brecht the political didact. As Eric Bentley points out, with considerable perceptiveness, Brecht's Epic Theatre is really the theatre of a poet. "The epic theory can be represented by unfriendly critics as Brecht's attempt to make a virtue of the special limitation of his dramaturgy, the dramaturgy of a writer of ballads. To which one might retort that the epic form vindicated this dramaturgy and showed that one can derive drama from poetic balladry." Indeed.

Perhaps the most illuminating prepartory read for The Threepenny Opera might be his Manual of Piety, a collection of savagely beautiful ballads satirising religion, some of which later were included in The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny. Here Brecht pays homage to a formative influence, the thief-poet Francois Villon, and writes blackly robust ballads about dead soldiers or people like the servant girl Marie Ferrar, "Born in the month of April / Rickets, no birthmarks, orphan, not of age", who after unsuccessful attempts to procure an abortion, is found guilty of infanticide. "Her prayers, it seems, had no effect".

It's this godless Hobbesian world, in which the weak wait in vain for the gates of Heaven to open while the strong trample them into the mud, that gives The Threepenny Opera its dark illumination. What's seductive about it is what drives Brecht's prowess as a poet: its amoral, irresistibly vital joyousness. Brecht the poet is the same as Brecht the entertainer: and all the supposed contradictions (as opposed to vitalising creative tensions) of his theory in relation to his writing emerge from glossing this vital aspect of Brecht's work. Even as his plays bent more consciously towards Marxist radicalism, he eschewed neither poetry or entertainment. "Grab them by the balls," he said once, "and their hearts will follow."

The great strength of Michael Kantor's production for the Malthouse is that it reanimates this Brecht, poet, entertainer and wicked trickster. Its first virtue is Raimondo Cortese's adaptation, featuring lyrics by Jeremy Sams, which transposes the action from Victorian London to a 1930s gangster Melbourne. It works for a couple of reasons: like Brecht's vision of Chicago in In The Jungle of the Cities, his Soho is pure theatrical fantasy, and Cortese has simply replaced this with a dystopian fantasy of Melbourne, slimming down Brecht's text by introducing Jenny (Paul Capsis) as a narrator. Crucially, it permits Cortese to exploit Australian obscenity, creating an unsentimentally vernacular diction that's as clean as a knife, and has an immediate contemporary tang.

The production itself takes place in a huge boxing ring which stretches the entire width of the Merlyn Theatre, its shadowy expanses exaggerated by Paul Jackson's lighting, which seems more an art of darkness visible than mere illumination. Into this space are wheeled Peter Corrigan's modernist monstrosities, huge mobile sets that jar the eye and act as simulacra of urban dissonance, an organically disturbing mess of architecture. Across this various stage-scape plays Brecht's nonsensical parable of human greed, vice and lust.

Its cheerful cynicism turns conventional morality on its head: here the bad guys win, simply because they are meaner than everyone else. The apparent deus ex machina, in which Mack the Knife is saved at the last minute from the hangman's noose, is a sardonic reversal that, rather than providing an escapist happy ending, reveals an uncomfortable truth: the biggest criminals get off scot-free.

Mack the Knife (played with charismatic swagger by Eddie Perfect) is far from a rough diamond. He’s a killer, a “sadist and a rapist”, a thief and a liar with, aside from a hypnotic sex appeal, no redeeming features whatsoever. Brecht’s undeceived vision saw that Mack’s charisma was not despite his wickedness, but because of it. Like today’s celebrity gangsters, Mack is rewarded for daring to enact society’s repressed desires: his dangerous attraction stems from our secret complicity with his crimes.

Kurt Weill's music, under the musical direction of Richard Gill, is presented in its original shape. It remains as fresh as the day it was written, and is a reminder of how brilliantly Weill wrote for the theatre, and how profoundly he has influenced popular music, from Tom Waits to Danny Elfmann. The music is the glue that holds this show together, and the counterpoint to its poetic dramaturgy.

Kantor and his cast simply go for it, generating an irresistible burlesque energy. For all its joyous spectacle, Kantor keeps the focus on simplicity: one of the few missteps is the decision to play Mack's underlings as hooting monkeys. Capsis and Perfect's riveting cabaret presences provide the vernacular base of the criminal underclass, crude and colloquially direct. The accomplished operatic clarity of Judi Connelli (Mrs Peachum), Grant Smith (Mr Peachum) and Anna O'Byrne (Polly Peachum) enact the gloss of the parasitic middle classes who suck their wealth from the suffering of the poor, who themselves are represented by the bruised and endlessly exploitable beggar Filch (Jolyon James).

Whether it makes an effective political statement remains a question of debate: like all satirists, Brecht was half in love with everything he hated, and that ambiguous sense of fun remains as blasphemous as ever. But as this Malthouse production shows, it's brilliant theatre. Most of all, it's brutally alive and wicked fun: which is to say, it's utterly Brechtian.

Pictures: Top: (L-R) Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis; bottom, Judi Connelli, Grant Smith and Anna O'Byrne. Photos: Jeff Busby

The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, adapted by Raimondo Cortese, lyrics by Jeremy Sams. Directed by Michael Kantor, conducted by Richard Gill. Set design by Peter Corrigan, costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson, sound design by Peter Ripon, choreography by Kate Denborough. With Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judy Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O'Byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith and John Xintavelonis. Music performed by Stuart Brownley, Daniel Carter, Bob Collins, Martin Corcoran, Doug de Vries, David McSkiming, Evan Pritchard, Bruno Siketa and Nic Synot. Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera @ the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until June 19.


Zardoz said...

Sounds unmissable... I wonder if we could organize a demo outside to demand more performances?

Alison Croggon said...

It might be appropriately Brechtian, whatever the outcome..

George Hunka said...

Sorry I won't get to this; I've been an admirer of 3Penny from back in 1976 and Richard Foreman's production.

Two notes: Threepenny was also the basis for Brecht's only novel (The Threepenny Novel, goes that imaginative title, the plot following closely upon Brecht's revisions of the plot for Pabst's 1931 film). And though I don't pride myself on being a Brecht expert, I have read a not insubstantial portion of his plays and verse, and I'm skeptical that Brecht ever said anything like "Grab them by the balls and their hearts [and minds] will follow," which here in the US anyway has been attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Chuck Colson -- in fact, pretty much everyone except Brecht. (It was much bruited about during the Vietnam conflict, but I doubt the underlying sentiment there was anything like the sentiment you attribute to BB!) Do you have a citation?

George Hunka said...

Also, if possible, I'd love to hear more about the portrayal of Macheath, especially in regard to your interpretation of his appeal! In Brecht's "Notes" to the Threepenny Opera, he says that, "[Macheath] strikes women far less as a handsome man than a comfortably situated man. The original English drawings for The Beggar's Opera show a squat but thickset man in his forties, with a head like a radish, already somewhat bald, but not without dignity. He is thoroughly staid, has not the least sense of humor, and his solid respectability is expressed by the mere fact that is commercial activity is aimed not so much at robbing strangers as at exploiting his own employees."

From one perspective, this is part of Macheath's appeal for Polly: he is as much a businessman, an entrepreneur, as her father. And the depiction of Macheath as an middle-class bourgeois entrepreneur would underscore his similarity to the capitalist ownership class that Brecht had in his satirical sights. To turn him into a sexy downtown quasi-sadist, a non-conformist "criminal," would tend to undermine the parallel, I think. (In Pabst's film, which surprisingly incorporates more of Brecht's Marxist revisions to the plot than legend has it, Macheath was played by Rudolf Forster -- perhaps not thickset, but rounder among the belly than not, an age more middle than young, and graying at the temples as well as above and behind them.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - I fear I don't have time to track it down, but I read the quote in an account somewhere that describes Brecht at rehearsals. It's not something Brecht wrote, but he is reported to have said it. It sounds very Brecht to me. I kind of bracket it with him writing $ signs in his diary next to notes about making films in Hollywood. You might remember his conversation with Benjamin where talks about the crucial importance of "crude thinking".

Eddie Perfect plays Macheath as a cartoon crime boss, in an ott fur coat. Eddie, if he will pardon me for saying, is a little plump: not your Nick Cave type. So he's played as a criminal businessman, with a gun in his pocket and contacts in high places in the police force; rich, but not precisely respectable. Here it had a local resonance, making parallels with gangster families in Melbourne, some of whom have been the subject of a popular television program.

Alison Croggon said...

PS There's a picture of him at the top, with Paul Capsis's Jenny.

Anonymous said...

Although I love the idea of a demo for more Threepenny, it may be faster to join Victorian Opera's/ the Malthouse's mailing lists. Both organisations will then be able to let you know about future seasons. Thanks for all the great feedback!

Abe Pogos said...

I got the distinct feeling that Eddie Perfect was doing an impression of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (at least a couple of my friends came to the same conclusion). I thought that was an interesting way to go if that was his intention, but in general his performance was indicative of the problem I had with the entire production. Everyone seemed to be trying too hard (or in some cases they were just plain trying). It felt like a big pantomime and I couldn't take any of it seriously (aside from the music which was a delight).

All the local references felt token and that was exacerbated by the design elements in the show. E.g. if you're going to refer to "the whores on Grey St", then it might be more convincing if they actually looked and dressed like the whores on Grey St, rather than escapees from Cirque Du Soleil. (I may be being too literal here, but as I used to live around the corner from Grey St I found the disconnect between the whores in the play and the reality hard to swallow.)

neandellus said...

My view is a little different. Posted at Crikey.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Abe - How can you take Brecht's Soho seriously either? It bears no resemblance to actual Victorian London... Or his Chicago in In The Jungle of Cities, which is about as realistic as 1930s gangster movies, or the American town in Mahagonny, which bears no resemblance to any real Wild West? They're theatrical realities, not documentaries.

Alison Croggon said...

...and hi Andrew!

Abe Pogos said...

Hi Alison

My point about not taking any of it seriously was mainly a reference to how I felt about the performances. I don't think one has to necessarily set a play that references Melbourne in a set that looks just like Melbourne, but in this case that would've been preferable to setting in it a boxing ring. If I'd found the performances more compelling then I probably wouldn't have cared, but in the end the design was one of a number of things that distracted from the text.

Alison Croggon said...

I totally enjoyed the performances, with some reservations around the edges. They were big, fun and vulgar, and I don't have a problem with any of that in relation to Threepenny Opera. I'm a huge Dark Knight fan and actually don't get how Macheath was anything like Christian Bales! (Was it the voice? Because he sure didn't look anything like Batman.) Corrigan's set was very Corrigan - lots of people hate what he does, and I do think his designs work better in the theatre than in the street; but I really liked those futurist allusions, and I didn't have a problem with the boxing ring. It's a fair enough metaphor for capitalism, after all.

Abe Pogos said...

I said Heath Ledger, not Christian Bales (perhaps I should've said The Joker). The only hint visually was in the make up around the eyes, but Eddie Perfect's physicality, slightly stooped with the odd extravagant flourish of the hands or sweep of the head, evoked Ledger for me (and the three people I saw it with).

I am incidentally a great admirer of Eddie Perfect. In this case there was too much effort in what he did and I felt that about most of the performers. It's not simply about being big or vulgar, they made acting look like hard work. (It is of course, it just shouldn't look hard.)

Alison Croggon said...

Oops. Sorry for the misreading. Heath Ledger still surprises me, but makes a little more sense than Batman.

Anonymous said...

My response was much closer to that of Andrew (follow the Crikey link above) than you, Allison. Sadly I thought Eddie Perfect lacked charisma/danger, particularly in the first half. I agree that his jailhouse song near the end is outstanding. The boxing ring thing was terribly annoying, not appearing to have any point byond the ring card 'girl'. The token apperance of some boxing gloves at one point seemed to bear out how poorly thought-through the boxing ring idea is. Overall, quite a pleasant entertianment, but that was all it was to me. I loved Judi Conelli and Grant Smith, but in toto it felt like every Kantoresque idea ever paraded at the Malthouse had been thrown into a blender and revivified for his farewell season.
Cheers, Michael

Alison Croggon said...

I see all your points (although I really did enjoy the performances on the night I saw it, and don't quite get what is meant by "hard work" - certainly not something I felt). At the same time, I feel there's something crucial in the centre or spirit of this production that is missed in these responses, although I won't repeat what I said in the review. While I was watching, and as I left the theatre, I felt I had seen something that quite accurately captured a sense of Brecht I've always seen in the writing, but not so often in more reverent productions on stage (not, truth be told, that he's often done here - I have a horrible feeling the last Brecht I saw, a production of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, was in Paris). It's that rough theatre, populist energy, which absolutely draws on traditions like pantomime. It's something that I've enjoyed in Kantor's work all along, even though I haven't always enjoyed the productions. I agree, it's often messy and unruly, and Kantor is better when he doesn't give in to gratuitous impulses; at the same time, I can't see how this crudely popular aesthetic is in any way opposed to a work being, at the same time, "serious". And in this case, I can't see how it's inappropriate for the work to hand.

Alison Croggon said...

Just to throw something else into the mix - an interesting essay on traditional panto and Epic Theatre by Nick Mabey (pdf file), speculating on the possibilities of using pantomime tropes in a Brechtian mode.

Maude Davey said...

It's probably a little too late to comment - we move on so quickly! - but I will. I found the first fifteen minutes of 3penny opera so disappointing I almost cried. Then, for me it improved. I thought Michael was trying for something that could have been built around Paul Capsis... his wonderful crassness, all flattened vowels and nasal overtones, his performance like an embodied caricature... but went wrong somewhere in the collaboration with Victorian Opera. Couldn't bear the Pirate Jenny song song by a soprano - she had a pretty voice, but after Nina Simone's brilliant growl, how can a trill compare? There was something so restrained and reverent about the playing, with the players over on the side away from the performers... I reckon he should have done it with the Circus Oz band, that would have given it the grunge I ached for. The design didn't work for me at all. The boxing ring references stopped at the rope (OK and the gloves), and I didn't even get the ring girl reference, I thought it was a panto/burlesque reference (which kinda worked) so the metaphor seemed still-born.


xofro said...

My thoughts - I saw both a preview and one of the 'settled in' performances (the latter ran considerably more smoothly!)

I'm an architect and I hate-hate-hate Corrigan's architecture - but every set design I've seen of his has thoroughly worked for me, this one included. It was a pity the front rope was always in the way - they hadn't quite worked that one out - but the initial empty space with the structures wheeling in was a wonderful coup de theatre for me. The culminating song (which seemed to be the heart of the show in many respects) was the duet with boxing gloves, pinning the themes together at that point. To see Mac & Jenny in their pugilistic embrace, an antagonistic interdependency, was astonishing. Here I felt Capsis suddenly became a woman rather than a caricature.

I wasn't a big fan of Anna O'Byrne's soprano, and Casey Bennetto was disappointingly constrained, but Perfect, Capsis, Connelli & Smith were wonderful. To have Dimity Shepherd in effectively a bit part showed an embarrassment of riches... The orchestral contribution seemed more band than opera (Gill used the original orchestration) but I understand that it could have been pushed further.

The one thing that both I and my accompanying friends were puzzled by was the localising to Melbourne but still having a coronation in the plot. Kantor/Cortese said this was to preserve a sense of unreal fantasy, but it became a distraction.

Nevertheless, at the end of each performance I came out of the theatre buzzing. provoked and energised - and the songs are still bouncing around in my head every day. And that's a win-win situation!

Alison Croggon said...

It's never too late, Maude! And thanks all for the thoughtful comments. It's a great discussion. And I too think Corrigian is a fantastic theatre designer.

Anonymous said...

is it an eerie coincidence - purely on a superficial and choice-of-name front - that Hugo Weaving's character in 2008 film 'The Tender Hook' was McHeath, and that the film, among other things, was about boxing? just a thought... :)
-- Glenn

Chris Boyd said...

Abe, Perfect reminded me of Hawks forward Jarryd Roughead - someone erratically deadly in the face of his goals, appositely - and sounded like John Stanton doing Malcolm Fraser in the Dismissal.

Abe Pogos said...

Chris, that is one of the strangest analogies to endorse an artistic performance I've ever seen. So strange in fact, I'm not prepared to argue with it. (Though Hawks supporters might prefer Roughead to be consistently deadly in the face of his goals.)