Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, adapted by Raimondo Cortese

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, adapted by Raimondo Cortese. Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera, directed by Michael Kantor, conductor Richard Gill, at Sydney Theatre, September 3-24, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 5

Baz Luhrman, à la Moulin Rouge, meets Bertolt Brecht in Michael Kantor’s vision of The Threepenny Opera. As Phillip Adams commented on Late Night Live as I drove home from Sydney, it’s a ten dollar set for a threepenny opera. Quite a few thousands of dollars, in reality. Is it Entertainment or Polemic, Underbelly or Over the Top?

Whatever – it works. Cortese writes “My aim in adapting the text has been to honour the original, while updating it to a modern Australian context” which means in Sydney the setting is in a kind of Kings Cross, Campbell Street, Palmer Street, Darlinghurst Road, Oxford Street sort of Sydney, in something like the Brigadier Spry era that I remember when policemen were known to accidentally fall on prisoners (as if they still don’t occasionally on Palm Island, Queensland).

At the same time the costumes, designed brilliantly by Anna Cordingley, are exaggerated circus, the singing is a howling parody of opera which extracts every bit of meaning out of Weill’s amazing music, the characters are colourful cut-outs – puppets manipulated by the strings of society. If you have an image of 1928 German style like this from http://threepennyopera.org/histChron.php

you’ll need to think again for this:

An important point for me in seeing this production is to realise how much the daring of Brecht/Weill in their twenties in the nineteen-twenties stimulated theatrical freedom for us in our twenty-tens. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the language, for example in Macheath’s Pardon song, of Eric Bentley’s 1960 official translation:

“The wenches with their bosoms showing / To catch the eye of men with yearnings”

with Hugh MacDiarmid’s official 1973 version:

“Those painted girls who show their breasts off / To lure the men who stand about them”

with the raunchiness and fucks of Cortese’s version. The relaxed and comfortable Sydney middle class audience remained so throughout, and were clearly entertained.

But the directness of the language also meant that there is no more hedging about the polemics. This version makes even more plain than the previous translations that each one of us is guilty for, as MacDiarmid wrote it:

“You gentlemen, don’t you be taken in / What keeps a man alive is hate and sin.”

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to buy Cortese’s text immediately after the show, so you’ll have to go to check out his version to get the details.

As usual in good productions it is difficult to isolate particular performers. Paul Capsis as Jenny, who also plays the Narrator, certainly takes the stage – for some commentators s/he goes too far and becomes the central character of the play. I’m not unhappy about that, since I always felt that Jenny is the one genuinely tragic character. Capsis certainly got the audience response he deserves.

The other actor I would mention, in the Sydney production, is Amanda Muggleton playing Mrs Peachum (played by Judi Connelly previously in Melbourne). This Mrs Peachum is knowing and horrible to the absolute core, as Muggleton captures the quality of voice and accuracy of tone and pitch which Weill’s music requires.

And then there is the surprise. When fear, hatred, sin and corruption beggars belief, what might not be the explosive result? However comfortable you are in middle class Australia, go see and find out the truth.