Friday 10 June 2016

Musical values - Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre with Rory Kinnear & Haydn Gwynne

Brecht, Weill - The Threepenny Opera - National Theatre - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Brecht, Weill - The Threepenny Opera - National Theatre - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Brecht (adapted Simon Stephens), Weill The Threepenny Opera; Rory Kinnear, Nick Holder, Haydn Gwynne, Peter de Jersey, Rosalie Craig, Sharon Small, dir: Rufus Norris, cond: David Shrubsole; National theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 9 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Funny and filthy with high musical values, but lacking a sense of real anger and bite

For all the fame of the songs, Brecht and Weill's Die Dreigroschen Oper is a tricky work to bring off and the piece gets relatively few outings on the London stage. Rufus Norris' new production The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre (seen 9 June 2016), designed by Vicki Mortimer, used a new adaptation by Simon Stephens with Rory Kinnear as Macheath, Rosalie Craig as Polly, Nick Holder as Peachum, Haydn Gwynne as Mrs Peachum, Peter de Jersey as Tiger Brown, Sharon Small as Jenny and Debbie Kurup as Lucy. David Shrubsole was the musical director, with James Holmes the executive music consultant.

Musical values were very high, the musical ensemble of eight musicians (Andy Findon, Christian Forshaw, Sarah Campbell, Richard Hart, Sarah Freestone, Martin Briggs, Ian Watson) were directed from the piano/harmonium by David Shrubsole and were full involved in the action, with Weill's score being given full weight on the drama. And the actors could all sing, this wasn't the sort of production where everyone did the speaking/singing style which was popular at one point. It is worth bearing in mind that our view of Die Dreigroschen Oper is based on the post-war revivals undertaken under Lotte Lenya's auspices rather than the work's pre-war outings. There is a wide gulf between the two, and if you listen to the recordings of Lenya singing excerpts from it made in the 1930's the style isn't the throaty chanteuse we are used to but a high, light soubrette. Weill's music reflects this, the keys of some of the numbers are quite high and if done properly then it requires performers who can really sing.

Brecht, Weill - The Threepenny Opera - National Theatre - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Brecht, Weill - The Threepenny Opera - National Theatre - photo Richard Hubert Smith
The biggest surprise was to discover that Rory Kinnear has a useful singing voice, a pleasantly light baritone. It isn't a Broadway belt sort of voice, but that is not what was needed here, and his style seemed just right for Macheath's music. More to the point, Kinnear had the knack of being expressive when singing (something which isn't true of all actors), so that Macheath's songs really did become an extension of Kinnear's dramatic persona. Kinnear wasn't the most malevolent of Macheath's, instead he was quietly efficient and ruthless and whilst this approach was not immediately colourful, it built to a strong and poignant conclusion. Kinnear's account of Macheath's long, final solo was terrific music drama. He was also sexually ambiguous, with the relationship between Peter de Jersey's Tiger Brown being clearly sexual (the two get into a clinch at one point).

He was surrounded by a group of strong characters, all of whom were as expressive in song as in speech, thus making this performance a joy to listen to. For the first time in a long time, I was able to sit back, relax and enjoy the score without being on the edge of my seat.
The placing of the songs was sometimes a little creative, and I suspect a little moving about had gone on. Polly Peacham (Rosalie Craig) got Pirate Jenny so Sharon Small's Jenny got Surabaya Jonny from Happy End instead (Pirate Jenny was written for Lotte Lenya who originally sang Jenny and when she started singing Polly she took the song with her. In John Mauceri's semi-definitive recording, the song appears twice.

Norris' production was fun, filthy and funny, taking its cue from Simon Stephens new version of the play. If the music stuck close to Weill the drama played very free with Brecht, and Norris eschewed much of Brecht's epic theatre style and alienation devices. This is entirely understandable, Die Dreigroschen Oper isn't Brecht's strongest play and if it had appeared with a score by one of Brecht's other collaborators such as Paul Dessau (who wrote the music for Mother Courage) you suspect the piece would be far less performed. It is Weill's stunning score which keeps it afloat, and ensures that Brecht's rather prosy, preachy drama has you entertained. Stephens and Norris real went for the entertainment side. Stephens produced a really filthy text whilst Norris and designer Vicki Mortimer set the piece in a neverland of physical theatre, with disposable sets (people kept breaking through them). Loosely set in the Weimar Republic, the piece was magpie like in the assemblage of different theatrical influences from slapstick and Keystone cops, to Victorian melodrama and the Weimar Republic.

The Peachums (Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne) were straight out of Otto Dix or George Grosz. Holder gave a transformative performance of Jeremiah Peachum, large, camp and cross dressing (for the final scenes he wore a man's suit with a bobbed wig and heels!), this was an uncommon Peachum but a really vicious one. Haydn Gwynne was a raddled and physical Mrs Peacham, using her height to make the character like one of Dix's caricatures. Both brought a strong sense of character to their songs, Holder having a nice line in vicious camp whilst Gwynne was wonderfully cynical in moments like the Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit.

Rosalie Craig was a brilliant Polly (re-thought as an accountant who easily runs Macheath's business whilst he was away). She was devastating in Pirate Jenny and brought a real strength (and great experience in musical theatre) to Polly's numbers which ensured that the character made a big impression. She was easily able to cope with the high tessitura of some of the songs, and made everything expressive, sounding at times like Ute Lemper (who recorded the role with Mauceri). Sharon Small was a terrific Jenny, almost the work's conscience a character who had been shat upon for a long time. That she sang Surabaya Jonny rather than Pirate Jenny meant that Norris' conception of the role was without any possibility of redemption, which made it all the more heartbreaking.

Debbie Kurup was terrific in the small role of Lucy and her duet with Craig's Polly was a real highpoint. This is one of the numbers which requires real singers and benefited from the production's care with musical values.

The ensemble almost made the finale work, here we get a glimpse of Weill the pupil of Busoni, and the music is difficult to bring off. I have never seen this work both musically and dramatically in the theatre, but the cast nearly brought it off which is to their immense credit.

The smaller roles were all equally strong. Macheath's four henchmen, Dominic Tighe, Jamie Beddard, Andrew Buckley and Hammed Animashaun were strongly drawn. Rather interestingly Matthias was played by the disabled actor Jamie Beddard, and when Kinnear's Macheath mocked him at the end this created a frisson of really disturbing theatre. George Ikediashi was a likeable balladeer as well as being Pastor kimball, Sarah Amankwah was Fich, Matt Cross was Officer Smtih, with Toyin Ayedun-Alase, Rebecca Brewer and Ricky Butt as the tarts, Vixen, Betty and Ruby.

For all the productions strengths there was one lack. Real bite. Some of the anger and vicious edge had gone out of the piece, replaced by laughter and filthy language. And Brecht needs anger, and the piece works best when there is a creative tension between the anger and political didacticism of the spoken drama and Weill's music. Instead we had a production which seemed to almost take its cue from the music and relegate Brecht to a side-line.

The amplification was admirable, and very natural sounding, with the songs coming over as extensions of the drama rather than having the singers suddenly spotlit. But sometimes the words did not come over as well as they should, which perhaps robbed the piece of some of its edge.

Overall a superbly enjoyable evening, and one which restored your faith in the piece and particularly in Kurt Weill's score.

Recommended Recording:
Kurt Weill Die Dreigroschenoper - Rene Kollo, Helga Dernesch, Ute Lemper, Milva, RIAS Sinfonietta Berlin, John Mauceri - Available from Amazon

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