Friday, 26 February 2016

Threepenny Opera, Canberra Rep

In the 1990s, it was fashionable to say that Brecht was a historical relic. Brecht's brand of diadactic propaganda had, the theory went, gone with the dodo with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of socialism.

Of course, socialism has been making a bit of a comeback recently (between Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK), and capitalist society has not exactly been covering itself in glory, so it's probably time to give Brecht's biggest hit another look.

"Threepenny Opera" is not exactly the most fuzzy or friendly piece of theatre ever written - Weill's biggest song hit, Mack the Knife, is a ballad describing the activities of a murderer and a rapist in somewhat unflinching terms - and Rep's production plays very true to the source. This makes the evening a bit of a slow burn - in particular, the first act, where we see Macheath at his height, bullying his gang, having a distinctly unromantic wedding. There is a slight sense, too, that the first act is a bit effortful - that the cast hasn't yet loosened up and let the show play as freely as it might - it's a laborious setup - though Tina Robinson's fierce-as-hell "Pirate Jenny" is a notable highlight. But acts two and three pick up and fly, as the forces around Macheath begin to close in.

Kurt Weill is not really going for easy-listening music -these are songs full of atonalities and sharp notes and pervading tensions. And in many ways this is not particularly audience-friendly theatre - it's a long night, it's going to confront you with characters who are not at all likeable and present situations that are not easy to resolve. We aren't talking charming criminals and scampish neer-do-wells here, these are genuinely dangerous people who we would do well to fear. Even the intervals aren't exactly audience friendly - the cast invade the auditorium throughout, and with a fairly strict 10-minutes only, a fair chunk of audience members were caught coming while act two had already started running... But there are definitely rewards to giving yourself over to the production, not least in several of the performances.

Starting with Tim Sekuless' Macheath - this is a performance that is not looking for sympathy in any way, and can feel quite offputting early on, particularly in his bullying-act-one appearance. As he starts to get a run-up going, fleeing from pillar to pillar during act two, we get a better sense of him under the gun as he faces off against the various women in his life. And in act three's "call from the grave", the tension mounts and, while genuinely disliking him, we fear his imminent execution.

Tina Robinson's Polly Peachum captures both the outward sweetness and the inner demon of Macheath's bride, while Helen McFarlane brings both lustful heat and angry rage to the double-dealing Jenny Diver (plus an immaculate tango). Sian Harrington's Lucy had a singing voice that was slightly stretched to its limit in the vocalally-rangy "Barbara Song", but she matched energies with Robinson well in the Jealousy duet, and had great "drawn-to-and-simultaneously-enraged-by" attitude towards Macheath.

Peter Dark's natural height serves him well as the hypocritical Peachum, gleefully lording it over and imposing himself on various and sundry. Saralouise Owens has that great combination for a Brecht-Weill show of a fine soprano and a vicious guttural attack, and can land either with ease.

Jim Adamik again gets a chance to show why he's one of Canberra Theatre's finest clowns - his Tiger Brown manages to get impressively more ridiculous as he disintegrates further and further under his increasing pressures. Oliver Baudert provides a fine cameo as Reverend Kimball - befuddled but willing to go along with whatever's happening (including a surprise final combination), and Rob de Fries' Warder Smith is ever-ready to be smoothly corruptable. Dick Goldberg's Street Singer ties it together in perfect cynical style, narrating and giving the audience just the right amount of raised eyebrow.

Of the rest of the ensemble, particular mention should be made of Pippin Carrol and Dale Stam's legs during the chase sequence, which manage to be a running gag in their own right (yes, it's a bodgy pun, but it's an appropriate one), the sultry work of the ladies ensemble, and Daniel Ferri's (I presume natural) broad Chicago accent giving us great B-movie hoodlum.

Ewan's musical direction sees a band of nine and a cast of nineteen carry the show in fine style - particularly stirring during the group-singing finales, but throughout they carry the Theatre 3 stage without unnecessary amplification (having been deafened by the odd musical in my time, it's appreciated!) Quentin Mitchell's set has a strong epic sensibility, with most of the theatre exposed to the elements, but with some great odd-angles in set-pieces like the jail cell and the Peachum's door, feeling very Berlin-Twenties. Equally so Anna Senior's costumes frame the characters on the spectrum between bourgeoisie and lowlife (in particular, perhaps, Helen McFarlane's great 1920s wrap).

As noted - this is not the easiest of viewing, and there is certainly a hope that act one will play a little tighter later in the season. But it's impressive, epic work none the less, pure theatre in a way that we don't often get to see. Certainly worth the time and effort.