If you’re thinking of taking a youngster, a maiden aunt, or grandparents of a certain age and a squeamish disposition to the National’s The Threepenny Opera, think again. I’m not talking about the stylised violence used by director Rufus Norris in his depiction of Victorian London’s lowlife. It’s the foul language employed throughout by Simon Stephens is his in-yer-face adaptation (book and lyrics) of Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann’s original 1928 German re-telling of John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera that will bring a blush to their cheeks.
That said, I do understand this permissive approach to the material. The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s satirical, angry condemnation of the hypocrisy of the upper classes, his indictment of capitalism, the justice system and a plea for social change. His message and the groundbreaking way in which it was delivered stunned audiences at its 1928 premiere. To succeed with equal impact today, it requires a boldness of approach that Stephens understandably, albeit self-consciously, strives for in his abrasive and vulgar adaptation.
For example, there is no reason, other than to be modish, to turn Jonathan Peachum, the overseer of London’s beggars, into a mincing cross-dresser, or to suggest that the flagrantly amoral Macheath, who marries Peachum’s plain but brainy daughter Polly, once had a sexual liaison with Tiger Brown, an old army buddy and now chief of police. It’s a scattershot approach appliqued onto the text rather than springing naturally from it.
Scattershot also applies to Norris’ overall production. There’s an anything-goes feel to the staging, some of which works but much of which does not. Especially lacking in conviction is the motley ensemble that passes for both Peachum’s bunch of beggars and Macheath’s street-wise gang of lowlife accomplices.
Nor was I convinced by Vicky Mortimer’s austere set. Though it is true that Brecht’s original text tells us The Threepenny Opera is a work written for beggars by beggars, what we’re presented with here is an arid space redolent of a dingy prop-filled rehearsal room or, when the Olivier’s revolving drum is pressed into service, a Syria-like bombsite.
Eighty-eight years (and dozens of revivals) after its first production, what keeps this influential and durable piece of “epic theatre,” as it was called, firmly in the repertoire is Kurt Weil’s cheeky, insinuating jazz-inspired score. Yet it wasn’t until 1954, when Marc Blitzstein’s somewhat sanitised English adaptation premiered off-Broadway at the Theatre de Lys for 2,707 performances, that the opening song, "Mack the Knife," became a global hit in recordings by, among others, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald.
The rest of the score, including, in this production, the interpolation of "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End) remains as fresh and catchy as it always was and allows Rory Kinnear, whose central performance as Macheath is good but not exceptional, to show off his rather pleasing singing voice.
There’s a feisty, full-throated turn from Sharon Small as Jenny Diver, Macheath’s ex-lover, whom he regularly visits at the brothel in which she is employed. Also in good voice is George Ikediashi as the Balladeer. I was less happy with Nick Holder’s fruity Peachum and, in the role created in 1954 by the great Lotte Lenya, Gwynne Hayden as Mrs. Peachum. The most fully realised performance – spot-on both vocally and dramatically – is Rosalie Craig’s Polly.
The eight-piece band under musical director David Shrubsole never falters in what otherwise is a disappointing, visually unappealing, unfocused revival.