Writer: Bertolt Brecht
Composer: Kurt Weil
English Dialogue: Robert David Macdonald
English Lyrics: Jeremy Sams
Directors: Jenny Sealey and Peter Rowe
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
There’s rebellion in the air at The New Wolsey Theatre. Banners are strewn across the foyer and auditorium, and cast members seem to be busking in the box office. It’s not some scheme to highlight arts funding cuts but instead an introduction into the highly charged world of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht and Weil’s adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggars Opera.
Graeae Theatre Company, in a co-production with The New Wolsey Theatre, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, has given the piece its own unique take, updating dialogue, lyrics and orchestrations to reflect modern society.
As a future society awaits the coronation of King Charles III, begging has become an organised business on the streets of London and corruption runs rife. For villain Macheath and his band of miscreants, the chaos proves to be rich hunting grounds, both in stolen goods and in stolen women.When he marries Polly, the daughter of beggar ringmaster Peacham, however, events take a darker turn.
Jenny Sealey and Peter Rowe’s production packs much into three hours – political commentary, disability awareness and plenty of anarchic humour. It’s a production that assails the senses, combing song, dance, music, projections and dialogue to create an immersive world.
Thanks to Neil Murray’s design, Malcolm Rippeth’s evocative lighting and Mark Haig’s witty projection, the show manages to combine both a rough starkness with a lavish beauty. There’s even a hint of some grand master painting in the large choral scenes – an epic scale that fills the stage.
It is in these full company choral numbers that provide the true ‘opera’ heart to the piece, a soaring mix of sound that envelopes the auditorium. It’s a true ensemble moment that highlights the strength of the company.
Individual performances emerge from the ensemble though. CiCi Howells’ full bodied vocals as Polly impress, as does her sparring duet with Natasha Lewis’ Lucy. Garry Robson and Victoria Oruwari deliver some wonderfully observed comic moments as Mr and Mrs Peachum and Graeae favourite John Kelly has the audience wrapped around his finger as the Narrator. Milton Lopes’ Macheath, though, never seems to capture the charisma that our anti-hero needs to command such a loyal following.
There’s fine work to make this production as accessible as possible, with onstage audio description, live captioning and a beautifully integrated performance from Jude Mahon, whose sign language interpretation mixes BSL with almost balletic grace.
It’s testament to the infectious energy of the company that this lengthy production (just under 3 hours) flies by, helped by the flow of Sealey and Rowe’s direction.
That energy can’t help but win over an audience but that exuberance does threaten to derail the production in places, replacing volume with projection and losing some of the nuances of the dialogue in the process. There’s also moments when some of the political posturing seems at odds with the message being portrayed and a projection sequence featuring Jimmy Savile is perhaps one step to far into bad taste.
Opera purists would undoubtedly be shocked at the ribald language of Robert David Macdonald and Jeremy Sams’ translation but Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil would probably approve that their everyday opera still has the power to confront society’s preconceptions.
Runs until 22nd March and then continues to tour
Photo Patrick Baldwin