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Review: The Threepenny Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre

Review by Kate Gaul

In 2028, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” will turn 100. It remains as fresh today as a scathing critique of ruling-class barbarism and capitalist corruption. It is a work that tends to suit the times, whatever the times. Ruling classes are always barbaric and capitalism is always corrupt.  Barrie Kosky once again triumphs at this year’s Adelaide festival with a production that originated from Brecht’s theatre, The Berliner Ensemble, which Kosky premiered in 2021.

The piece is set in Victorian London, but this “The Threepenny Opera “is, naturally, very German, and very Kosky! It has a kind of Berlin cabaret aesthetic and set in a less defined place and time. It all begins with one of the strongest opening (and closing) gestures I have seen in music theatre  -a bejewelled head covered in the plastic covered blue of a bleaching treatment pokes through a black glitter tinsel curtain to sing the “Ballad of Mackie Messer” (or, as it is known in English, “Mack the Knife”).  It is seductive, cheeky and heralds a story of a society teetering on an abyss. Brecht is good for you – that’s always a worry!  But with Barrie at the helm it may just surprise us!

Macheath, known to friends and associates as Mackie (Gabriel Schneider), is a local hood who shacks up with Polly (Cynthia Micas), the daughter of a stand-over man and controller of the beggars of London, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Tilo Nest). Peachum and his wife, Celia (Constanze Becker), are none too happy about this, and enrol chief of police Tiger Brown (a quite brilliant Kathrin Wehlisch) to demand justice. Brown is besties with Mackie, having been soldiers together in India.  All these relationships fail — usually because of money, in some way. The work is glittering, entertaining and just as savage as can be. Kosky’s usual clarity with story shines and we never get lost over the three hours.

The seven-piece band (covering fifteen instruments) with Adam Benzwi conducting are all good sports as they double as street toughs.  It’s all brash, abrasive, and brilliant. Weill sounds spiky and powerful. In the program notes, Kosky declares Weill as significant to music theatre as Wagner and these musicians further that claim.

And incredible jungle gym set by designer Rebecca Ringst has the cast climbing, scrambling, and hanging from its geometric structure. It is an apt metaphor for the brutal clambering for survival these characters endure. A mixture of contemporary glamour and theatrical chic in costumes by Dinah Ehm are dazzling.  Performance styles are eclectic to say the least: vaudevillian expressions and gestures burlesque, knowing, and extended bows and audience interaction. The violence is cartoonish, and creepier and more effective for it. Kosky and his team have a knack for cutting through the usual posturing often seen in Brecht to something quite new, subversive and (also) gleeful.

We’ll probably encounter many more “Threepenny’s” through our lives, but I posit none will be as incisive, unique, and unforgettable as Kosky’s take. Tim Byrne of “The Guardian” sums things up perfectly: “Kosky is undeniably a genius, to produce a “The Threepenny Opera” of great urgency and panache. It’s still a profoundly uncomfortable work, challenging a largely wealthy audience not just to part with their complacency, but their pretensions to compassion and altruism. One key song talks of food as the precursor to morality, the inference being that you can’t build a humanist society when people are starving. It immediately brings Gaza to mind, but also the homelessness and desperation on our own doorstep. You rarely get theatre as relevant as that.”

Image Supplied


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