Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre review: An explosively raucous show

Simon Thomson

Olivier Theatre | ★★★★★

The National Theatre’s production of The Threepenny Opera is stagy, artificial, vulgar, nihilistic, hilarious, and brilliant. This is opera for people who don’t like opera. Bertolt Brecht, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Kurt Weill’s Weimar Republic-era adaptation of John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, is returned to its London roots in a properly fleshed out, satisfyingly filthy new adaptation from Simon Stephens.

Rufus Norris directs an on-form Rory Kinnear as the love-rat anti-hero Captain Macheath, (AKA Cockney geezer and back alley sleazer, Mack the Knife). Macheath is the leader of a street gang, who provokes the wrath of East End crime boss JJ Peachum and his wife Celia, by eloping with their daughter. In a show that abounds with strong performances, Nick Holder’s JJ is a stand-out. Equal parts Jabba the Hutt and Cruella de Vil; he is a vicious, manipulative, gender-fluid, hyper-Fagan whose malevolence is all the more terrifying for its sugar-coating.

Sneering scepticism stands in for the pointed satire of Brecht's original, and permeates everything, or as one song neatly summarises, “The world is fucked and life is shit.” Here, even declarations of love are corrosive; the newlywed Macheath asks his rightly suspicious bride, “Why would I waste my time pissing in an empty bucket when I got you, my love?”

Although the action is successfully transferred to the East End, the aesthetic is still informed chiefly by inter-war Berlin. Costumes look as though they were lifted from the paintings of George Grosz, while Victoriana, music hall, burlesque and silent films (including a stunt stolen directly from Buster Keaton), are all layered to deliver a richly detailed vision of austerity. And a copper gets stabbed in the arse.

The Threepenny Opera isn’t really an opera, or even a musical; it’s a play with songs. Everyone will recognise the opening number – popularised by Bobby Darin as the lounge hit Mac the Knife – but this is probably the most accessible. Weill’s music, a sort of klezmer infused jazz, is highly distinctive, and when coupled with the lyrics it conjures everything from abstruse atonal work, to a sort of earthy, central European blues. The performers vary in their singing abilities, but it sets up a rather satisfying, You Got Served-type sing-off between Macheath’s competing lovers. The small orchestra punches above its weight, performing on stage, in costume, as part of the broader ensemble, and the pared down orchestration complements the general sense of deprivation.

In a production where the audience can see backstage and all the machinery of the theatre, where characters routinely smash through scenery and speak directly to the crowd, a production that never pretends to be anything other than a work of entertainment and fiction, perhaps its most postmodern feature is also its best: the narrative is deliberately imploded just short of the finish line, and although it would be wrong to reveal the ending, it is ridiculous, beautiful, and utterly, utterly cynical.

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