The Threepenny Opera lives
on in superb production
The National Theatre School puts on a fast-paced wonder of a show
By Byron Toben
In 1728, during turbulent times of inequality in England, John Gay wrote The Beggars Opera which lampooned ultra romantic Opera by setting it in an amoral world of lower class degradation and upper class hypocrisy.
In 1928, Elizabeth Hauptman, the then lover of Berthold Brecht, noted the similarities to the Germany of the day, translated it into German, and brought it to Brecht’s attention. Enlisting the collaboration of composer Kurt Weill, the show opened in Berlin, and became one of the longest running shows of its day, translated world wide.
The National Theatre School managed to entice Eda Holmes, the new artistic director of the Centaur, to direct this Simon Stephens adaptation. As in Ms Holmes recent direction of The 39 Steps she has produced a fast-paced wonder, with lots of physical theatre.
The National Theatre School managed to entice Eda Holmes, the new artistic director of the Centaur, to direct this Simon Stephens adaptation.
Since the rights holder has forbidden photos from the actual production to be included in reviews, I have included some inserts of great singers doing a few of the 21 songs, many of which have become pop or jazz favourites
The main protagonist is the original anti-hero MacHeath. Although he seems irresistible to the ladies, he is a pimp, assassin, kidnapper and arsonist who controls a gang of thieves. Here he is ably embodied by Jake Wilkinson.
Introducing him is Shauna Thomson (who doubles as a member of the gang) singing his theme song, Mack the Knife. Here is a fine version by 1960s cabaret star Hildegard.
Turns out Mack was an old army buddy in wars in India of Jack ‘Tiger’ Brown, who has now risen to chief of police in London, giving tips and protection to Mac (who is secretly poking Brown’s daughter Lucy played by Eva Foote).
The king of the beggars, Jonathan Peachum (Kenzie Delo) controls hundreds of beggars, licensing their spots and collecting fees. His alcoholic wife, Celia (Kathleen MacLean) is attracted to Mac but both are outraged when Mac secretly weds their young daughter, Polly (Cara Krisman).
Polly (Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya in the original) throws in an unrelated song, Pirate Jenny. Listen to a recent version by the incredible Ute Lemper.
The Peachums conspire to have Mac arrested and hanged by bribing his favourite prostitute Jenny (Rosalie Tremblay) to alert the police when he visits the brothel. Against this background, the royals are planning a coronation parade. Tiger warns Mac to go into hiding as he is in charge of rounding up criminals who might disrupt the event. Mac appoints Polly to manage his gang while he is away, despite her youth. (She does so well, acquiring a bank.)
Mac cannot stay away from the brothel, is fingered and arrested and due to be hanged until the famous ending.
Some of my favorite lines from Threepenny
Mr Peachum sings a song about his philosophy of Life, which includes a stanza (even harsher in German):
“The world is Miserable, Man is evil.
It would be better to be a good person,
but, the circumstances are not quite right.”
“Oh, how much better to own a bank,
than to have to rob one.”
And the closing lines of Mac the Knife, which could have been in Gorky’s The Lower Depths:
“For some flourish in the light,
and others dwell in darkness,
and Attention is paid to those in the light,
those in darkness… no one cares.”
The Threepenny Opera ran at the Monument National from February 27 to March 3.
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Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.