水川青話 by Yuko Kato

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The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre — some bullet points

2016-10-08 20:49:05 | Rory Kinnear

(this is basically just a memo for myself, to get it out of my system for now. If the NT Live version gets a showing in Japan, I might do a Japanese version)

 

The National Theatre production of The Threepenny Opera, adapted by Simon Stephens, directed by Rufus Norris, began previews on 18 May 2016 and ran until 1 October 2016.

I first saw it in late June, then again late September as well as the final performance.

Between first hearing about the show up until the final night, I rather obsessed over it, read various English translations, watched/listened to various productions including the 1931 Georg Pabst films (both the German and the French).

I also acquired the piano score with the original German lyrics, as well as the famous Broadway Blitzstein version -- which I quite dislike because it's so clunky and sanitised (especially the "Pimp's Ballad" which was turned into a "Tango Ballad" as it took out most of the pimping and baby references).

As with most great works, the themes are multi-layered, and because I think the story itself is rather forced (not just the Deus Ex Machina forced ending, but also the central storyline), it took me some time until I could actually feel I've grasped the structure of the piece. 

But because the adaptation was brilliant, the acting and singing first rate, the music performance delightful, the sets and costumes light-hearted, charming and fluid, the staging hilariously funny whilst holding onto a simmering rage and wounded bitterness at the core, I was enthralled from the start, and that got me really thinking about the piece -- which eventually led me to these bullet points:

(unfortunately, because the Brecht/Weill estates won't allow it, as I understand, Simon's script hasn't been published. So the lyrics and lines I wrote here are from scraps of paper I furiously scribbled onto from memory during the interval and after the show)

1. The main theme of the piece

...as bluntly put forth by Simon Stephens’s adaptation, the theme can be found in these lines (among others):

- 'The world is fucked and life is shit'

  (First Finale)

- 'You can’t have ethics that you can’t afford'

(Second Finale)

- 'How does a man survive in this damnation, he lives by cheating, choking, grabbing all he can see!'

(Second Finale)

- 'Let’s raise our voice and sing to those still standing

  They took their cut and never had to pay

   Let’s praise and cheer the wealthy and demanding

   Let’s hope they last to live another day' 

(Ending chorale — sung ironically “through gritted teeth” as Rory said in his Platform Talk. I'd never come across such a grand ending to an “opera” or a musical sung with such gusto and with such scathing bitterness)

 2. Driving plot - Polly’s empowerment

 As far as I’ve seen, this has never been so clearly outlined in other versions. Partly because some versions give songs like "Pirate Jenny" to Jenny. Also because other translations aren’t so crystal clear about the structure of the story -- possibly because Brecht himself wasn't so clear about it.

In the 1931 Pabst film, Polly does become a bank manager and gain power, but "Pirate Jenny" is sung by Jenny, so Polly's story arc is a bit abrupt (in the Pabst film, Jenny was played by Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, who later played the terrifying Rosa Klebb in the Bond film "From Russia With Love", by the way).

In Simon's version, the first song Polly sings is "Pirate Jenny" and there she clearly states what she’s going to do (have revenge upon everyone who had wronged her). Then in the "First Finale", she explains her motive and intentions further ('What I want most, what I planned, I just want to be respected'). On various occasions, she stresses how she hates being laughed at ('Don't laugh at me, Mack'), and then sets about acquiring Mack’s business and wealth.

It's Polly that brings about Mack's downfall by giving her dad (intentionally, I tend to think) the 'nugget of information' about he and Tiger Brown 'on a sodding silver platter'. And you need to note that Mack repeatedly compliments her razor-sharp mind. She is a calculating accountant, after all, who's been reared in the Peachum household, and cries out, 'The world is fucked and life is shit'.

Remember, in her glorious "Barbara Song", she says Mack didn't treat her properly, didn't say anything, dragged his fingernails through her hair and had his way with her, yet he was the one she couldn't resist. For a while, as brilliant this song -- and Rosie's singing -- is, I was a bit uncomfortable, thinking, it's such a great song but it's also so wrong! Then it dawned on me. Polly saw her chance and took it, then uses Mack to get what she wants, and does what Pirate Jenny promised (the Deus Ex Machina resolution with her contacting 'Our important friend from Windsor' to save Mack is an artificial function of the Brechtian construct, as opposed to a normal story arc, I think).

 

And even their sentimental-sounding love ballads are saying things like, 'love may last or it may disappear', and 'fun for a short while but now it's all over'. So much for eternal love.

To put simply, Polly is the one that drives the narrative.

 

3. Peachum and Macheath are actually the same 

They demonstrate the same obsession with money, power, violence. Macheath is also obsessed with sex, but perhaps that’s because he’s younger than Peachum. You could say Peachum is an older version of Mack, and therefore they need to destroy each other.

Speaking of Peachum, it was Nick Holder’s presence, the heavy make-up, dainty heels, frilly apron, and the Louise Brooks wig, together with his menace, his charm and his magnificent singing, that set the grotesque/comic tone of the piece from the very first scene, from the moment he flops down his apron and glares out at the audience.

And speaking of setting the tone, Hadyn Gwynne's Mrs. Peachum was also extremely effective, and not just through the brilliant recreation of the Otto Dix portrait, but also by the heavy whiff of world-weary ennui and resentment she exuded. And the motives for Mrs. Peachum, like Polly, were made extra clear in  Simon's adaptation in a way it wasn't in the original; as she repeatedly says, she feels spurned by fate, and in this instance, spurned especially by Macheath. Hell hath no fury, indeed (and that's why she talks about 'his ugly face', not because he is ugly).

 

4. The Relationship between Mack and Tiger Brown

Although some have said that the more explicit iteration in Simon Stephens’s adaptation is quite original, it’s not actually. The homo-eroticism is quite blatant in Brecht’s script, and was there also in the Pabst film. 

For example, although cut from the NT version, Brecht has Polly tell her parents, 'Every time they drank a cocktail together, they stroked each other's cheeks ... every time one of them left the room, the other's eyes grew moist and he said: "Where'er you go I shall be with you."' (Methuen version, pp. 31-32) 

Not to mention the expression on Peter de Jersey (Tiger)'s face as he looks up at Mack after he's been kissed long and hard. 

5. That it’s a “cheap opera” put on by beggars

The National Theatre staging emphasises at the start, and repeatedly throughout, the meta nature of the piece -- that what we're seeing is in fact a performance. The troupe is getting ready for the show, sometimes the actors interact out of character to each other and the musicians ('Thank you, the scene has already started'), and the props are marked (e.g. 'large flag to be used in Scene 7').

On top of this, the fact that the cast are able to sing it in an “operatic” way when needed, made the whole premise -- that this is a mock opera -- work; especially the mock-Wagnerian parody at the end. Rory as Mack proclaiming 'He saved me! He saved me!' on that high F sharp, in a classical singing style, effectively turned the whole thing into a parody opera, and made it all work.

(OK, I've now read what Weill wrote about this, that "the finale to the third Act is in no sense a parody, rather an instance of the very idea of 'opera' being used to resolve a conflict ... this return to a primitive operatic form" etc. Methuen p.90).

Also, having seen or listened to other productions, one of the things I liked most about this production is that everyone sings all the notes. And having read the score, I realise some of the notes are really high, and that some of the passages are really difficult.

So, in a way, no wonder that in the early productions involving Brecht and Weill themselves, which were supposed to be a proletariat antithesis to grand opera (or, as Weill puts it, "the earliest form of opera"), a lot of the singing was quite non-operatic. Indeed, some of the "singing" was done in a more German cabaret style, speaking the words rather than singing, and dropping an octave when the pitch was high. 

Which is fine, in a way, but this National Theatre version, in which the singing stayed faithful to the score, including all the high F's and the high A's, truly showcased the full power of Weill's music. For example, I'll never forget Rosie Craig powerfully belting out the Barbara Song -- it was so thrilling I got goose bumps every time, amidst the round of applause that always erupted (Simon's translation is also brilliant).

Rory said in his platform talk that they sometimes dabbled with changing the keys during rehearsal, but everytime they tried, they realised that Weill knew what he was doing and the original key was the one that was the most effective. 

It must have been a real challenge to hit those high F's and A's towards the end of the show, but as I said, that quality of singing is what gave it the genuine sense that this was indeed a mock opera, and gave life to the whole structure of the piece. Kudos.

 

6. Almost bizarre echoes with current affairs

 

On Friday night after the Brexit referendum, I understand that the Balladeer’s opening line, 'This is an opera for a city that has gone beyond morality' received huge applause.

Also, when Rory opened the second act with, 'So you came back, you could have left, but chose to remain. What do you think of this newly "united kingdom" ours', that got another huge round of applause.

And then the Peachum line, as he turns his beggars into “patriots” (equipped with St. George’s flags) and says, 'If you give the despairing a mission, you can make them do anything you want … and they won’t stop until they bring down the state' brought the house down.

Simon Stephens has said he’ll never forget that experience. Rory and Nick have also referred to those scenes and that experience as something very extraordinary. Rory has said that night the Olivier felt like a safe haven in an otherwise disturbing world.

I first saw the play the week after Brexit, and those lines still reverberated so much that it was almost painful. I was also there the day Michael Gove withdrew his support for Boris Johnson and Johson resigned, so had to laugh out loud when Rory said something like, 'Maybe I should stand for prime minister, since I like stabbing people in the back. Mike the knife....'

When I saw it again three months later, the lines were no longer getting special applause, but with the U.S. election looming, I couldn’t but help think of the Republican candidate. The song "Of Sexual Obsession" says, Macheath laughs at the Bible, doesn’t pay tax, and can’t control his sexuality. And Robert says to Mack in prison, “You should have kept your cock in your trousers.” 

Reminds you of someone, doesn't it?

(By the way, today was the day the Washington Post reported the "grab them by the pu--y" tape)

 

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