It’s all too easy to ceremoniously, uncritically revere and sanctify Weill and Brecht like the demigods they almost were. I, however, in my boundless devil-may-carefreeness, am not about to do so. Much as I adore it and can barely imagine life without it (‘twould be politically and theatrically poorer, for sure), my impression (attested to, to some extent, by historical record) is this work was rather hastily cobbled together, probably on the basis of economic imperative, chopped and changed and that it met with unsatisfactory end, as the dynamic duo didn’t really have one. Which isn’t to say it isn’t bloody brill; but brill in the sense of true brilliance, in all its erratic, manic glory.
This production comes to us from the wonderful people at Malthouse (read our Melbourne review) in cahoots with the Victorian Opera; the last of which endows us with the characterful perfectionism of Richard Gill, as musical director. Raimondo Cortese is responsible for the text and Jeremey Sams the lyrics. Sydney Theatre Company, one way or another, seems to have a penchant for embedding classic texts in Aussie vernacular and while I’m all for it, in principle, in pratice, for my money, this can sometimes go too far, giving way to gimmicky ‘look at me!’ references (including that one) which, far from making the original work fresher, more topical or relevant, tends to trivialise; distract from its intent and intrinsic value.
What the production cartel has done is assemble a diverse, surprising and stellar cast. Indeed, the choices could hardly be bolder. Director Michael Kantor deserves kudos inasmuch, for these include Paul Capsis, lapping it up, as the loyal, but ultimately Judas-like prostitute Jenny; and, of course, the inspired Eddie Perfect, exploring the boundaries of his talent and pushing well past them (who knew he had such a huge voice, or that it resonated so powerfully down deep?) as uber-villain Macheath; better-known to all of us as Mack The Knife.
Lucy Maunder is right on song as Polly, especially vocally; her voice being in exceptional shape. Angela Scundi radiates suitably cheap heat, as gangster moll Suky Tawdry. Amanda Muggleton might bluff her way through about half her lyrics, but noone can question the intensity of her presence, or efficacy, as the domineering, take-no-prisoners Mrs Peachum. Grant Smith, as her Croesus-like husband and Polly’s father, is a standout, melding lizard-like mogulism with razor-sharp, underbelly-like, scheming, canniving, blackhearted cruelty. (Come to think of it, there’s little, if any distinction between those traits.)
But even amidst all that, like Mack and, perhaps, certain babyfaced Melbournian crims, he has a fatal charm and likeability. Brecht has exemplified his mischievousness in these characters: the darkest ones are, typically, infinitely more lovable than the naive, goody-two-shoesers. Flash Harry bent cop, Tiger Brown, is colourfully and mercilessly caricatured by Jolyon James, clearly in his element. Johanna Allen, as Jimmy, makes for a wonderful parody of blokey muscle, all the more ludicrous when played by a woman. John Xintavelonis is excellent, too, as the thickheaded loyalist, Mitch.
All these actors burn incandescently with character and energy. Luke Joslin is also good as Filch; likewise, Michael Whalley, as Swing. And let’s not forget Dimity Shepherd as Mack’ first wife Lucy, who gets to show off her very considerable operatic chops, albeit in the most comical possible way. And, across the spectrum of performers, Anna Cordingley’s fanciful, fantastical costume design only but adds to the parodical buffoonery.
Thus, as sheer entertainment, as a general nose-thumb at authority and legitimised highway robbery (banks, insurance companies, et al), as a risque indulgence, this production works a treat. But when the Aussification rubs up against Brecht’s final diatribal rant, the shortcomings become rather more apparent: a layer is lost, the one about the dark days to come in Germany and all over Europe. Big-hearted thieves, whores and tramps are all very well, but the specificity of their original political significance is MIA.
Still and all, corruption as currency still holds up. And there’s always the underlying strangeness of Brecht’s lyrics to mull over, as well as the raw, angular pleasures of Weill’s music, which is unto itself and which still sounds incredibly modern, even after going on a hundred years. And there’s something all too delicious and attractive about all this squalor and debauchery, despite one’s squirming, squeamish moments, such as that in which Mack pretends to slash a coterie of would-be victims in many and various imaginative ways.
That’s my two-cents’ on The Threepenny Opera. Opera? Save for The Beggar’s Opera, its antecedent dating back about another century, it probably qualifies as the first real musical. Or is it a kind of cabaret? Who knows? Not even Brecht and Weill, I suspect. They were in too much of a hurry to scrutinise, I reckon.
Kantor deserves credit and praise for eking every drop of talent out of his cast (original, best of all, in the sense of not being the usual suspects); much of the colour and vicacity out of words, to say nothing of more than a few of Cortese’s; and for having a bloody decent stab (apologies) at revivifying the spirits of Brecht and Weill.
The details: The Threepenny Opera is at Sydney Theatre until September 24. Tickets on the STC website.