Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Threepenny Opera - Canberra Rep

Review by John Lombard

Aarne Neeme's new production of The Threepenny Opera starts in the foyer before the show, with Dick Goldberg in full tramp regalia perched on the floor with his hat out for offerings. In the spirit of things, I tossed him a coin. Then when we were in the theatre, Goldberg jangled his not unimpressive takings: poverty can apparently pay.

It was the perfect reflection of the play's world of profitable poverty, where the desperate are kept alive by brutal acts. This is Les Mis if Valjean had developed his line in bread theft to a successful industry and used his clout to pay off Javert - or failing that, payed other policemen to have him beaten in an alley. These thieves, beggars and harlots are too cheerful to be Misérables.

We first meet Peachum (Peter Dark), business-like master of the semi-official guild of London beggars, the man who maintains the professional accreditation and right to trade of all the desperate and needy. Unfortunately the planned comfort of his age Polly (Tina Robinson) has eloped with flashy mob ringleader Macheath (Tim Sekuless). Matters are complicated by Macheath's unshakeable alliance with corrupt copper Tiger Brown (Jim Adamik). With the cops in league with the robbers, the stage is set for a game of beggars vs. everyone else, a game where the beggars are paradoxically the most powerful players.

As a play by Brecht, unavoidably alienation was used to simultaneously engage and distance the audience, most strikingly in an almost gutted set that strips back the Theatre 3 space to reveal the backstage area. I thought giving the audience a peak into the spaces normally only seen by Rep's actors and production teams was quite clever, and much like last year's production of Casanova Rep itself felt like another character in the play.

Tone, however, is where this production will be most controversial. The play has drawn on silent films for a lot of its style, with projected title cards opening scenes and several chases (including one in the foyer) that could have come from the Keystone Cops. This is not a grimy, realistic underworld but a cartoonish gangster flick, with Jim Adamik's spoony policeman and Macheath's dim-witted gang outright comic figures. While they give the play needed energy, no attempt has been made at the realism that could give the material heft.

The light tone is particularly jarring when the cast burst into song, because many of the numbers are gory and brutal: Pirate Jenny and the Act 2 finale are harrowing, and they feel out of place in the friendly, cheerful and often very welcoming criminal world the cast have created. This reaches its greatest absurdity in the finale, where a deliberately iconoclastic twist feels identical to the resolution in a Gilbert and Sullivan. On the way out of the theatre I heard one audience member say that she wondered whether the Pirate King would complete the scene by bounding onto the stage.

Fortunately the production has an unusually strong cast, with lead Tim Sekuless the standout as Macheath. Sekuless gives easily the most polished performance in the show, and his controlled articulation ensured that his songs were also often the most satisfying (many of the other songs were hurt by mushy wording that had to fight with the cacophony of the band). Sekuless' interpretation is however spectacularly unlikeable, sneaky and nasty without the animal charisma that might make him an anti-hero. When he is finally in danger of the gallows rather than having a twinge of hope he might get out of it we feel it is long overdue.

There are also fine performances from Rob DeFries, Oliver Baudert, Helen McFarlane, and Sian Harrington in often quite brief but also very satisfying appearances. Jim Adamik once again stands out for giving a hilarious performance, but here his brilliant clowning is at odds with the more sarcastic and mordant humour of the piece. Rob DeFries' much more restrained (but still very funny) performance as Macheath's bland and relaxed jail keeper was a better fit with the world of the show.

More than other Rep productions, I feel the Threepenny Opera has the potential to divide audiences. After a wonky first act I became progressively more involved (chiefly because of strong acting) until I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. This was a fun night, in the way that slapstick and Gilbert and Sullivan are fun, but the frippery gets in the way of the potential for a more macabre and memorable pleasure. Macheath's blade may shine, but it does not cut.