Review: The Threepenny Opera (Festival Theatre Edinburgh)
A rich kids revival of a groundbreaking “opera”
Right now at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, there is an exhibition of Banksy’s work called “Cut and Run”. One of his quotes, next to a display from his temporary art project Dismaland, reads:
Bertolt Brecht once said ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it’. Which is fine, but what if you’re in a hall of mirrors and the giant hammer is made of foam? This is the question raised by Dismaland Bemusement Park.
With this Banksy proves that if you change a metaphor entirely, it will end up meaning something completely different. Fancy that? But additionally, it exemplifies how the work of Brecht, a man who could not have been more explicit about his intentions for his work and the direction he believed art should move in, is repurposed to suit bourgeois anti-capitalist tastes. And with tickets to his famous “play with music” costing significantly more than threepence it is hard to argue that this production doesn’t fall under that category. But high-price tickets and high-society buzz are a little hard to avoid when it is produced by no less than the Berliner Ensemble, the company founded by Brecht himself.
For newcomers to his work, one of the central tenets of his philosophy is that audiences should be aware that they are watching theatre and be cognisant of their opinions, and not allowed to be passively absorbed into the world of the performance. Another is that audiences should learn that nothing is fixed and everything is changeable – emphasised by the “alternative ending” offered where instead of being hanged the notorious criminal Mack the Knife is given a title, a pension, and a castle. Some of those principles are clear in the adaptation – the avoidance of realism is certainly there. The orchestra are treated like furniture, the audience are mocked for how easily impressed they are, and characters wear their titles like “criminal” and “crime boss” without needing to see them in action. The cost of this is that because societal roles are treated like semantic details it is hard to become invested in their place in society and buy that their lives (and subsequently our own) as changeable. How much this will matter to an audience member will depend on how invested you are in Brecht’s ideals – but when it is written into the script but not forged into the production even unknowing audiences may sense that something is off.
Photo Credit: Jess Shurte
The set design does a good job of encapsulating this Threepenny’s limitations. At the back of the stage, you can see the fittings, the fixtures, and all the bare essentials of the theatre, uncovered for all to see. In front of it though you can see the glittering, intricate, and immense set, not to mention the sophisticated costumes, like Polly Peacham’s puffy wedding dress and platform heels that sparkle in the lights. Glitz and glam like that doesn't come cheap, and it doesn’t speak to the anti-establishment concerns of the work, but good god isn’t it nice to look at? The costumes are irresistible, the space is self-consciously abstract and yet so playful, I could watch them slink through it like runway-ready sewer rats all day long. And then you get to see the performances, and frankly, this is a cast that is second to none. The stand-out is Cynthia Micas: her voice is heavenly, and her Polly is smart, tender, and fervently her own person despite how much of her character is just yearning after her husband. As for Mack himself, Gabrial Schnieder is every bit the charming bad boy this swanky metropolitan criminal underground requires. But “swanky” and “metropolitan” aren’t really what this show is about, is it? It is meant to be cheap and grubby, thought-provoking without being alienating, and to speak to an audience who might relate to a world where “food comes first, then morals”. Arguably, in a time when so much of our entertainment is merely “content”, some Brechtian cognisance in audiences is overdue. Instead, this production is theatrically intelligent but stylistically indulgent. Nevertheless, there are plenty of audiences who will gladly accept the chance to be indulged – and reader I am one of them.
Photo Credit: Jess Shurte
This is a production of The Threepenny Opera made by politically-active rich kids. They have the care and the knowledge to do much of the classic justice; the way some of Brecht’s concepts have been translated for modern audiences is clever and engaging. But they have money, and so does their target audience – it would be as embarrassing to show this fact as it would be to hide it. Subsequently, they have made a Threepenny that definitely isn’t a mirror, but isn’t much of a hammer either. At the same time, it is hard not to catch the excitement radiating from the stage; there is so much at stake with this particular work and this particular ensemble. Whether you adore their approach or resent it, this had to be an event of some magnitude, and it bloody feels like one. Three stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: Absolutely spectacular - wunderbar!
The Threepenny Opera has completed its run at Festival Theatre