Book & Lyrics: Bertolt Brecht & Elisabeth Hauptmann
Music: Kurt Weill
Translator( book);Robert David MacDonald
Translator (lyrics): Jeremy Sams
Directors: Adam Nichols & Julia Mintzer
Almost 100 years ago, Brecht’s new Threepenny Opera graced Berlin stages to an initially poor reception before becoming a widely respected criticism of capitalism and heralded as the first musical. The play cemented itself with such a legendary status that Mack The Knife still prowls stages all over the world. St Albans-based company OVO bring The Threepenny Opera to The Cockpit in a high-energy revival that Brecht may have disproved of but you are likely to enjoy.
In 1928, when this play was first performed, it was a biting socialist satire, completely damming Victorian England and the capitalist systems that upheld it. To update that for a modern audience, to keep the punch in a world that sometimes satirises itself with its own absurdity, is no mean feat. Unfortunately, this production doesn’t quite hit the mark and relies heavily on what Brecht did rather than what he would have done today.
mackThe prevailing message of the original script and lyrics, translated by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams, is that under a capitalist system, we are incentivised to do bad things to make money, so who are we to judge a murderer if we allow a bank manager to walk free? Although noble and nuanced as a point, it’s not enough in an era where daily news cycles ‘expose’ the crimes of the wealthy and damn the lifestyles of the poor. Simply pointing it out doesn’t inherently contain the sharp wit of the original.
The choice to pseudo-update the script by lending more ambiguity to the time (it is set around the coronation of King Theodore rather than that of Queen Victoria. Marks & Spencers and Primark are mentioned, but capital punishment still exists) disappointingly cowers from directing the morality of this tale at something concrete and relevant. It means what we are left with is an ageing narrative, dripping with old-fashioned views on sex work, misogyny and a noticeably undiverse cast for a show that is supposed to be about poverty in London, the most ethnically diverse and economically disparate city in the UK.
However, for all the failings of the adaptation, the production is phenomenal. The ensemble cast of thirteen actor-musos doesn’t have a single weak link and the attention to detail in each performance is notable. Peter Watts, who plays the cockney villain Macheath is always switched on, always listening and doesn’t have a hair out of place. He commands the attention of everyone on the stage and off adding needed believability to how charming and terrifying Macheath is painted out to be from the off. Smaller roles in the cast shine equally; Ben Howarth brings measured and distinct charm to all of his roles and it is a treat whenever Emilia Harrild sings.
The staging and design are equally impressive, having the story take place in a whimsical construction site, costumes are fun, well-utilised and clever. The round and multi-functional set leans into the amphitheatre-esque voyeurism and lighting is circuslike and effectively disorientating. The distinct style of it all is so well executed it sometimes serves as a reminder of the failings of the adaptation.
The Threepenny Opera at The Cockpit is certainly not the politically engaged and experimental piece Brecht originally intended, but he’s been dead for nearly 70 years so is unlikely to enforce the zeitgeist of today.
Runs until 7 October 2023