Thursday, February 20, 2014

[theatre] "The Threepenny Opera"

People who fancy themselves as advanced lovers of music scoff at musicals, yet recently I found myself attending two of them. This was the first, the adaptation by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht of the 18th century Beggar's Opera by John Gay. It is pretty famous and you have probably heard at least one of the songs from it before, that song being 'Mack the Knife' (the more alliterative 'Mackie Messer' in German). You may also have heard the Pirate Jenny song or read the somewhat unpleasant League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic that dramatises it. This production of the Threepenny Opera was in Dublin's Gate Theatre, a place that has a reputation for being commercially driven and keen to service the desires of its well-heeled clientele. As with all productions there, the show begins with the Gate's front of house manager making a short announcement about how people must srsly turn their mobile phones off before explaining various ways in which he is there to help with their post-performance needs. I was struck yet again by what an amazing man this guy is. He has such an air of poise and assurance that I could imagine people going up to him after the show and asking for help with the most existential of crises and yet finding him able to offer calm words of sensible advice. I really think it is time someone wrote a play about him. Or that the Gate just charged people money to hear him dispense words of wisdom and calm assurance.

The Threepenny Opera is notionally set in London at some point in the past, but this production seemed to have adopted an approach of deliberate abstraction. The actors avoided any attempts at adopting London accents and the clothes they wore did not suggest any time or place in particular, apart from seeming generally old fashioned. The various low-life characters mostly talked with something approximating to Dublin working class accents, but this was not so overdone that I felt like I was being treated to a performance of the Skanger's Opera. I liked this approach. Brecht and Weill's setting was always a bit stylised, and with the passing of time the danger of going for more specific period detail is that you end up with something that is a retro nostalgia fest. The lack of a specific setting here makes it more abstract and mythic, a tale for all ages.

I feel like everyone in the world has seen a production of the Threepenny's Opera but I will recap the plot quickly. It begins with the 'Mack the Knife' song, sung by the suave narrator (played by David Shannon) about that terrifying man, and then the story proper begins, with notorious criminal Macheath (Mack the Knife of the song) having married a pretty young bride while said bride's creepy parents try to have him thrown in jail so they can get their daughter back (having her around was good for business).

There is an odd piece of cognitive dissonance here. In the song, Macheath is presented as a maniac, a force of malevolent destruction with whom it is impossible to sympathise, someone that any sensible person would want to see carted off to jail at the earliest possible opportunity. But in the drama itself Macheath is a far more sympathetic character. He is still a thoroughly disreputable character, a treacherous thug who will sell out his nearest and dearest, a sinister exploiter of women. And yet, and yet… the play largely tells the story from his point of view, so it is hard not to slip into seeing him as the protagonist and to sympathise with his struggles against incompetent subordinates or equally treacherous old friends. I am guessing that this ambiguity is there in the original, but I am sure that here it is greatly assisted by the direction of Wayne Jordan and David Ganly's strangely sensitive performance are important here.

I was also struck by how Macheath's innocent young wife Polly (played adroitly by Charlotte McCurry) manages to take over his criminal empire while retaining this sense of being an ingenue in a big nasty world. And Hilda Fay as Pirate Jenny brings a great air of ancient sadness to the role of a jaded and beaten down brothel keeper, someone who has suffered terrible abuse at the hands of Macheath and yet is still bound to him. And again there is that strange ambiguity to her character and that of Macheath. Just as 'Mac the Knife' paints him as a maniac and yet we see him as something a bit more sensitive and appealing, so Jenny's song details the abuse he has inflicted on her but their interaction displayed onstage is relatively tender (though not without its ambiguities and betrayals).

I understand Jenny to be one of the great theatrical roles for any older woman actor (i.e. anyone past her early 20s) and Ms Fay really seizes it. Like some other people I found her performance revelatory. From what I hear she is not someone who hitherto has found roles to match her obvious talents and I hope she is able to use this success to her advantage.

I am in danger of just listing everyone who was in the play and talking about how great they were so in the interests of brevity I will just make clear that this was a piece with a great ensemble cast. I am glad to have finally seen the Threepenny Opera and to have found that it lives up to its reputation.

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

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