Review – Threepenny Opera – National Theatre

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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.)

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13 Responses to “Review – Threepenny Opera – National Theatre”

  1. Michael Ball Says:

    “I didn’t feel anything for anyone on stage… And I found that without sympathy, there was no tragedy,”

    Welcome to the world of Brecht! You’re not supposed to sympathise, but to analyse; tragedy is a misplaced Aristotlian concept.

    The thing that was missing was Rory Kinnear’s sexuality: this was not a man one could imagine sleeping with anybody anytime and everybody willing to give up everything to revel in his libido.

  2. adriandrew1 Says:

    I think you have been very kind with your review. I thought the show as a bit of a disaster and I sat in good seats. It thought it lacked focus and clarity, was messily directed, and the new adaptation seemed childishly obscene and had little theatrical, emotional or political impact. I did think Haydn Gwynne was very good but many other roles just didn’t work, particularly Rory Kinnear who failed to show the required stature the role needed. Considering the level of subsidy the NT gets, and the resources and time they have for rehearsals etc., I have been very disappointed by the last few shows particularly those directed by Rufus Norris. There’s no excuse for this considering the theatre’s privileged position. Also I know it was a preview I attended too but it really should have been in a better state before they showed it to a paying public! Particularly the first half. There were lots of people saying the same thing during the interval. Love your reviews though! Keep up the good work.

  3. Sam Green Says:

    Yes me too. I was in the back row upstairs. Man next to me left at the interval. Probably best not to review a preview, though. It’s unfair, frankly. I’m an actor and there’s nothing worse than someone judging you from their armchair to the entire planet before you’re ready for it, so I invite you not to do it. Previews are a fragile time for a cast, especially with such a massively convoluted show. I went in order to support my friends. The show will inevitably improve, probably beyond all recognition. I saw the dress rehearsal of War Horse. What a mess. Please don’t review previews.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Sorry, but if they don’t want people talking about the show, they shouldn’t sell tickets. This discussion is way, way too late in the game – like saying “you can’t get married until your elder sister does.” The internet is here and we’re talking about what’s going on. I won’t stop and the people who wanted to know if they should pay to buy a ticket for tonight or tomorrow are glad to have someone’s take on what is happening on the stage right now.

  4. Richard Carter Says:

    Just saw it tonight, and although the production was very imaginative and good, the casting was woeful: casting actors who can’t sing, in singing parts was a huge mistake. Sharon Small in particular was awful to anyone who has heard Lotte Lenya: she comprehensively wrecked Surabaya Jonny, and the other singers weren’t much better. Rory Kinnear is a fine actor but was totally miscast here: he exuded about as much menace as a blancmange, and his accent was all over the place but mostly RADA. A sad disappointment.

  5. altoclef44 Says:

    Michael Ball has it absolutely right. This is not a soap opera. This is how it was and is. Sympathy doesn’t come into it, although, oddly enough, I felt glad at the end that Mackie didn’t die. Rather worrying, that. I enjoyed it, if that is the word. I would see it again. Original German libretto was based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and yes, they were all as corrupt as they are shown. Peachum sold people to the courts, the women were all prostitutes, and MacHeath was a highwayman.Everything up for sale. I seem to recall that Polly was an OK girl at the start, but even she got drawn in. And I daresay Mr and Mrs Peachum were saving her for the highest bidder and the strongest crime contract. No wonder the Lord Chamberlain banned it – too many parallels with higher society.

  6. jamiebeddardJamie Says:

    Hi, I am the actor who played disabled character Matthias. Disappointed your friend left early due to stereotyping of disability. I was doing my best, and as someone with cerebral palsy, this is a first – embodying a stereotype. More likely bad acting at play. Your review also managed to morph into another actor in the play, Andrew Buckley, thereby denying me both my name and disability.

    It would be facile of me to mention stereotypes of reviewers not checking facts. I am facile!

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I am sorry, Jamie, I will fix that. I thought I remembered the name of your character correctly and I did check the names against the program, so that was my mistake. I thought you were great and would love to do an interview for you for my blog, because I think it is well past time that our theater represents more closely our society and the willful exclusion of other abled people is a sin that needs redressing.

      • Theatre Maker Says:

        You’re wrong and you should know that it’s not ok to review previews, especially a 2nd preview! There’s a reason why they are called previews and the seats are cheaper – if you came and saw the show last night I guarantee it’s entirely different to the show you saw a week ago, which you’d expect after 6 previews. Do you review meals when the person making it is half way through cooking it? The Internet being a thing does not change simple etiquette so that excuse doesn’t wash. Good or bad things to say, just don’t do it. The fact you’ve already pissed off two actors and a production manager writing this review alone should probably be enough to tell you it’s not your calling. Go to theatre, enjoy it or hate it, and talk about it with your mates in the pub – don’t sit behind a screen pretending you’re a theatre critic.

      • webcowgirl Says:

        The people complaining about my opinions are hypocrites as if what I had said had been positive they’d have been telling everybody to read it. I’ve seen it happen again and again. If professionals are getting their knickers in a twist about what an amateur writes, maybe they shouldn’t go looking for reviews on the internet. The same goes for you. Nobody forced you to read this review and you didn’t pay me any money for it. Please take your horse and buggy back to the 20th century, where people didn’t write posts on what they do and see on the internet the day they see it, and theaters could control when critics posted their reviews, and professional critics could make a living doing this (and have staff to help them with it).

  7. garrywgibbs Says:

    I saw it today. The part of Mathias is played by a disabled person. Can anyone explain why this choice was made and on what grounds? His speech was very difficult for me to understand and Rory Kinnear at one point in character made fun of it as part of the production.

  8. garrywgibbs Says:

    Webcowgirl paid for her seat and chose to write this review objectively and for no fee yet she draws criticism from people for doing that. I find that petty and mean-minded and I seriously wonder why on earth she does it. These sanctimonious theatre luvvies make me want to throw.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      It’s really kind of thrown a blanket on my desire to review shows anymore. People only want to hear the positive and hide from the negative – well, actually what they do is attack. I just don’t need the grief.

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