Occasionally I’ll see something that needs a bit of thinking or something with a production element that is best reflected on, but to be at a real loss as to what I thought even after much mulling time doesn’t usually happen.
But The Threepenny Opera, currently playing at the National, has rather confounded me. After almost a week of considering I’ve concluded, rather anticlimactically, that I thought it was ok. I can’t say I didn’t like it but I certainly can’t say I loved it. And honestly I’m struggling to explain why. Here follows a collection of thoughts that make a spirited attempt nonetheless.
I think my main problem with this production is the show itself. It’s a piece of musical comedy-drama in which I liked neither the music nor the comedy-drama. Which is kind of an issue. For me Kurt Weill’s music is at best a poor man's Sweeney Todd (with one exception). I can remember none of it a week later (with one exception), whilst the closing folk song from 2015’s NT Beaux Stratagem is still stubbornly lodged in my head. And whilst Brecht’s original conception of an amoral satire on popular opera may strike some people as bold and subversive I am not one of those people. To me it was just all rather predictable. I can’t honestly imagine a production of this show that would make me love it, or even like it all that much.
There are production-specific things I didn’t like as well, principally that it had all the subversive power of an M&S jumper. I think this must be the most middle class interpretation of subversive I’ve ever seen. It was the theatrical equivalent of a Home Counties yummy mummy thinking she was being awfully larky by using an Aldi bag for life in Waitrose. My understanding of Brecht going into this production, whilst limited, was that the whole point of it was subversion. And without delivering that, Simon Stephens’ new translation of the book and lyrics - which are the main culprit here - all felt rather unnecessary. The attempts to up the subversion with a Family Guy (unfunny episode) sized dose of vulgarity don’t work either. Vulgarity and subversion are not the same and vulgarity is not automatically funny or entertaining.
I wouldn’t normally mention it in a review but the other thing that really pissed me off related to this production, and which has certainly informed my view of it regardless of whether it was in any way linked to anyone involved with it, is the programme. Normally so good at the NT, the essays in this one are devoted to spouting the sort of uber lefty, nonsensical bullshit that would make even the most dedicated Corbynista blush. A particular highlight: ‘is thinking for yourself a Marxist idea?’ It is beyond the scope of this review to address everything that is wrong with that sentence.
But there are things to like in this production, some of which you can like very much. Rory Kinnear takes the lead role of Macheath - or Mack the Knife if you prefer - and makes his debut as a musical theatre actor. His voice is startlingly good; like sort-of-makes-you-hate-him-a-little-bit-for-being-such-an-allrounder good. It almost goes without saying that his performance is top drawer in all other ways too. He’s not an immediately obvious choice to play a murderous badboy but he really works it, in a sort of understated, dry, wryly funny way. Loved the guyliner too.
He has ample support in a talented cast, especially from Rosalie Craig as his less innocent than she seems new wife. Again, it goes without saying that she has a knockout voice and her solo numbers are undoubted highlights of the production, even if the songs aren’t that great. George Ikediashi (aka cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat) is a glorious scene stealer who delivers a cracker of a Mack the Knife - my “with one exception” to how I don’t like the music - to open the show and descends on the moon to save Macheath’s life to close it. His mischievous performance is possibly the one thing that feels genuinely subversive here too.
Vicki Mortimer’s design is fun and effective. Sets are comprised almost entirely of brown paper on wooden frames, which allows characters to enter and leave around or through them. It gets slightly overused but it is effective. The use of the Olivier’s beautiful old revolve is great throughout too. The costumes and makeup design echo this self-consciously artificial atmosphere. It all adds up to look like a great big Victorian cartoon. I was a fan.
So to sum up, I sort of liked The Threepenny Opera in as far as you can ever like a production of a show you’re not a fan of. Or at least I think I did. I’m still not really sure.
The Threepenny Opera is on in the Olivier Theatre at the National (in rep) until 1st October.