Last Wednesday I went to see Bertold Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. It’s always good to get out of my hotel room at least one evening when I’m staying away and it’s a chance to catch up with a bit of culture. I had a good seat – five rows back and in the middle of the row – which I’d booked the week before over the internet. I was lucky as on the night the the theatre was pretty full. It seems to have been a popular production with the run extended to the middle of November.
This savage satire on bourgeois society tells the tale of the villainous but irresistible Macheath (‘Mack the Knife’) a notorious thief, pimp and murderer, and his entourage of criminals. The Threepenny Opera caused an immediate sensation when it opened in Berlin in 1928, changing the shape of musical theatre forever. It is now one of the best-loved musicals of all time. (Gate Theatre website)
I’m not a fan of musicals, but this play is different being a political fable and Weill’s music is anything but run of the mill – some catchy and memorable tunes (I think most people are more than familiar with the opening song Mack the Knife) but quite challenging at times. Today I guess we can’t appreciate how revolutionary it was but it’s influence is evident in some later musicals – Cabaret in particular.
Coming out at the end, I overheard two elderly (probably 10 years older than me!) men, who were with their wives, discussing the play. One commented that “it was a thin storyline and the characterisations were black and white“. Well they clearly don’t know much about Brecht. Of course he’s not big on complex storylines, they’re always simple and didactic moral tales and political fables, intended to change the audience’s view of the world. ‘Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.‘ As the Irish times put it in their review, the play is “bourgeois bashing with catchy tunes”
I also disagree with their statement about the characters being black and white – they’re all quite dark. Nobody comes across as “white”, although Brecht’s skill is to bring out the better aspects of some of his characters, showing how they are products of their environment and circumstances.
The Threepenny Opera highlights the cruel, ruthless nature inherent of living within a capitalist regime – a system which drives individuals to do anything in order to make money (Aoife McGrane in the production programme)
The characters and their actions may be immoral and obnoxious to us, but they simply reflect the world we live in. As MacHeath says towards the end of the play
What’s the burgling of a bank compared to the founding of one?”
But Brecht isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s not straight acting – characters are caricatures; they don’t talk in a “natural” way and the action can be slapstick and cartoonish at times. He didn’t want to create an atmosphere of “make believe”. Brecht also wanted it to be absolutely clear to the audience that they were in the theatre. In this production there were many scenes were the actors stood on the edge of the stage directing their speeches directly to the audience while addressing another character stood to the side and behind them.
Mark O’Regan was a very slimy and unctuous Mr Peacham very ably assisted by Jackie Marks, with a strong singing voice, as his wife. David Ganly made an impression as a streetwise Mac the Knife and all the other principle female characters – Charlotte McCurry as Polly, Hilda Fay as Low Dive Jenny and Ruth McGill as Lucy Brown – were very good.
It was interesting that although the play is set in London, the production had most of the actors speaking in quite broad Dublin accents (luckily I am getting used to that now!). But the story could just have easily taken place in Ireland’s capital and any other reasonably sized city. The translation also had plenty of Dublin street wise language as well – liberally dosed with profanities and swearing. I don’t know how true that is to the original script but it certainly made the production realistic in this respect, at least.
In the original script the action is set at the time of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, but in this production a king is about to be crowned. Although not made clear I reckon it was Edward VII. But the theme and the story are timeless. It could even be set today (other than no coronation is planned just yet).
On the night, the audience took a little time to warm up and weren’t sure whether they were supposed to applaud at the end of the songs. I suspect some of them didn’t know what to make of it at first and that some may have thought there were coming to a straight musical. But the atmosphere warmed up during the performance.
Brecht did say theatre should be about education rather entertainment, but for me he often achieves both. And for me, with this production, Brecht, ably assisted by the Gate Theatre Company, did just that.