I swear I’ve seen The Threepenny Opera before, but I’m beginning to think either it was very, very long ago (a student production when I was in college?) or perhaps a film? Was it just tapes of the music? Or perhaps … was the National’s reimagining of this show so original that it just blew all of my memories away? It’s so difficult to say. I mean, everyone knows Mack the Knife(er – Captain Macheath – Rory Kinnear) is a murderer … but do I remember him as being so hopelessly weak around the ladies? Did he also sleep with men? Was Mr Peachum (Nick Holder) as corrupt as all that? The only thing I was certain was absolutely, positively NOT in the original was the newly tarted up Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig), who was more of a gangster’s moll than an innocent led astray by love. And of course I’ve never seen the cast be such a variety of races and even disabilities – assuming Jamie Beddard as Matthias “the Shadow” is actually really handicapped and not just playing “a bloke in a wheelchair with a speech impediment,” which would be just too incredibly distasteful for the National to contemplate and which caused a friend of mine to leave the theater in outrage, believing him a stereotype rather than an example of incredible casting. I found it all perfect, and well suited to a show set in London’s East End. So perhaps there really have been huge changes to the script. Rather than comparing it to what’s gone before, I’m going to treat this show like it’s all brand new, because, really, I felt it was a whole new ball game, and that’s how I’m going to write about it.
So. It’s London, and it’s time for a big celebration – the Silver Jubilee? The Golden Jubilee? Who knows. It seems to be today, a time when British soldiers are back from Afghanistan (including Macheath and Chief Inspector Brown – Peter de Jersey) – but simultaneously an older London, where criminals and prostitutes have their “patch” and beware those who cross it – most of all anyone else trying to earn a living begging or stealing on the streets. The evil Mr Peachum runs a gang of beggars which seems, all things considered, to be quite copacetic with the police, because each is as corrupt as the other. Peachum seems to be a man of no morals – he’s unconcerned who his wife Celia (Haydn Gwynne) has sex with – and he celebrates violence. But for some reason he is outraged that Macheath has married his daughter Polly. Possibly he was planning on keeping her around to sell for sex – it’s all a little unclear – or perhaps Mac is just his enemy from past deeds. Polly runs home from her nuptial deflowering, grabs some clothes, and is off again, and the plot is set in motion: Peachum wants to catch and kill Mackie. Songs ensue.
The set for this show is stripped back, with the walls of the theater exposed and the various elements (staircases, platforms, etc) done very bare-bones, with the occasional burst of excitement from, say, an extremely realistic car, a sparkling hoop of a cartoony moon (best decorated with George Ikediashi standing on it and singing), or a giant British flag that’s about the size of the entire Lyttleton. The characters, however, are dressed richly, with extravagant hair, makeup, and costumes helping to bring all of the principals (and secondaries) to life. This is the kind of theater where we are being forced to use our imagination, and with that little help a rich, seedy world comes brilliantly to light.
Yet somehow the combination of music, story, and setting didn’t gel for me. I didn’t feel anything for anyone on stage. They seemed like cartoon characters, as unrealistic and formless as Marvel superheroes but without the outrageous back stories. And I found that without sympathy, there was no tragedy, merely a tale of several lives gone bad, done to music. Is it because I was watching a preview? Or perhaps that was all the effect that the show sought? Either way, it was a dissatisfying evening, with some musical highlights and a few coup du theatre but nothing that really grabbed me. I was in the back row, though, so perhaps it was just too hard to get to me. Still, it seemed like a good production of this show, and if you’re paying more than £15, you may find you get a more intense experience.
(This review was for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 19, 2016. It runs for a while.)