This is the question: will any future production of The Threepenny Opera ever outshine Mac Tonight for political and moral poignancy?
Answer: Perhaps, but not if you let Michael Kantor near those bloody gorilla suits.
McDonald’s 1986-88 Mac Tonight campaign is, it might be argued, the ultimate yardstick for re-interpreting the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera.
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Picture this: Mac the Knife, condemned, stands atop the gallows deck:
You are looking at the last representative of a soon to be extinct species. We labourers who toil with honest crowbars on the cash registers of small business are being swallowed up the corporations with the banks standing right behind them. What’s the skeleton key compared to the share certificate? What’s knocking off a bank compared to interest on a loan? What’s thieving for money compared to working for money?
The trap drops and he swings. Enter Mac Tonight, the moonfaced representative of an all-consuming fast-food conglomerate, dutiful employer of 400,000 souls, the banks somewhere behind, flag-bearer for a corporate culture so desensitised to corporate crime and excess that it now takes, without irony, marketing cues from a fictional thief, rapist and assassin, one originally authored by an antisocial Marxist as a caricature of bourgeois banditry.
And what timing! One year after he makes his television debut, Wall Street crashes, just as it did one year after Brecht’s own Mac the Knife appeared in 1928. Coincidence? No. It is Zeitgeist! In his moony orbit wheels the cold junk of a culture addicted to the numbness of absurdity.
Here it might be worth returning to Earth for a bit of backstory. The Threepenny Opera tells the tale of the gangster Macheath and his downfall at the hands of Mr Peachum, the beggar king. Written by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill and based on The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, it pulls off the magical trick of seeming both a rollicking piece of noir-ish escapism and a cutting, class-based social satire.
The principal effect of this magic, its political effect, is to challenge the preferred self-image of the so-called petty bourgeoisie — professionals, small-business types and theatregoers generally — as classless and socially independent. It is a mirror held up to the audience in which the absurdity of certain moral assumptions founded on this preferred self-image are revealed.
And Macheath is the glass, an aspirational crook who vaunts his apparent independence but cannot ultimately break free of the interests that entangle him. In Macheath we see the middle classes, those neither working class nor ruling class, their political morality a composite of hypocrisy against one and complicity with the other. As the drama unfolds, class conflict intensifies, and Macheath swings like a crazy pendulum, like the gibbet-corpse he will shortly be, between the jailhouse and the whorehouse, never able to break absolutely the orbit of either.
In other words, The Threepenny Opera is a hell-for-leather lecture on political morality. Back in the 1930s, Brecht bragged that his theatrical lampoon had made certain of their absurd moral attitudes appear intolerable to the bourgeoisie–a true political impact. Since Mac Tonight, however, where the absurdity of a position is its recommendation, we see that patent absurdity never did make a moral position necessarily untenable. What is wanted, along with absurdity, is bite, some specific tooth that might draw blood or prick the conscience.
At the Malthouse, meanwhile, eighty years later, Raimondo Cortese and lyricist Jeremy Sams provide an adapted text that goes a good way toward providing that tooth. The opera is now set in Melbourne, and Macheath is styled on one of the city’s gangland celebrities. This might be a rather opportunistic, somewhat tabloid transport, but it is still impressively followed through.
Theirs is a visceral piece of writing, funny, vulgar and at carefully judged moments even downright shocking. The monologues, such as that quoted above, ripple with energy, and one or two of the songs, such as the “Ballad in which Macheath Begs All Men for Forgiveness”, are among the most potent and affecting adaptations going around (Eddie Perfect as Macheath absolutely kills this number).
But director Michael Kantor’s production fails the text. Where Cortese and Sams offer brutality and specificity, Kantor fudges things with a murky sort of half-burlesque. The set is a giant three-part Reg Mombassa-type blob on wheels. The costumes are a camp farrago of dress-up randoms. The manners are inexplicably reductive and do nothing but dull the effect of the text. Why, for instance, do Macheath’s gang dance about like monkeys and animals? What could justify such distraction?
And as if it wasn’t enough to transport the scene from Victorian London to contemporary Melbourne, Kantor also imports his own idea and places the whole thing inside a great boxing ring, complete with boxing bell and a ring rope strung between the audience and the stage. The rope is really annoying. We’re already in a theatre, a place built for staging conflict, what good does this extra bit of metaphor contribute? One suspects it is there only to justify the lazybrain idea of having Suky (Amy Lehpamer) strut about ring-girl style to introduce each new ballad. The worst thing about this ‘ring’ is that it gets in the way. The players don’t even behave differently when they cross the rope, inside the ring or out: it is an entirely empty device.
The third penny to scatter this production is the musical arrangement. Victorian Opera, through conductor Richard Gill, offer a straight version of Weill’s score which, though pleasant enough in its own right, doesn’t do much to marry the text with the direction. What it especially doesn’t do is fill out the gulf between operatic talents like Anna O’Byrne (Poly, Peachum’s daughter) and the less-spectacular, cabaret talents of, for instance, Casey Bennetto (Tiger Brown, the chief of police). The result is a rather thin accompaniment, somewhat buried by the onstage confusion.
There are, I should say, several scenes where everything pulls together in stunning fashion. The final scene, already mentioned, with Macheath on the jailhouse roof, and the reprise of Mac the Knife immediately before the interval, are brilliant. The silly visual medley falls away, strangled out as Paul Jackson’s sharp lighting narrows its grip and gives better definition to the players and the themes.
The cabaret-style energy between Paul Capsis (Jenny) and Eddie Perfect provides the ground for many of the best scenes. Some of the other players, however, seem to be on their own trajectories.
Then it all finishes with that bloody gorilla suit.
In 1955, Brecht wrote of his play that he thought it could still fulfill a powerful political and aesthetic function in capitalist countries, so long as theatre people still knew how to make a thing bite as well as entertain, knew how to make something real, instead of a mere cosy absurdity.
Even though it might lack the unified, naïve impact of Mac Tonight, I think this production does at least show that there is still bite in theatre, only it also shows that cosy absurdity is likewise near to hand.
Text: Raimondo Cortese
Lyrics: Jeremy Sams
Director: Michael Kantor
Conductor: Richard Gill
With: Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judi Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O’byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith, John Xintavelonis
The details: Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre, May 28 – June 19. The season has officially sold out, but more tickets may become available closer to each performance. Check the Malthouse website for updates.
*More “reviews” of Melbourne Theatre to be found at Neandellus