If you put on a production of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, how much does anyone care that the action is ostensibly set in the streets around them? My guess is that we understand when a setting is a stand in for ‘far far away’, and are happy to displace it in our heads to another similarly foreign location for the duration of the show. This question is at the front of the mind when watching Rufus Norris’s new National Theatre production of The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Victorian London-set fable. This is no more a play about London than The Barber of Seville is about Seville, but putting it on the National stage means you can’t avoid certain reflections on the city itself.
For Brecht himself in 1928, Victorian London was the very image of the bourgeois capitalist city, and thus a good place to set a myth about its myriad failings. To their credit Norris and translator Simon Stephens have chosen to lean into the grounding the locality provides, so that references to Rotherhithe and Canning Town don’t come across as the meanderings of a slightly lost German working off a dated guidebook.
Part of the effectiveness of the London-setting comes in the earthiness of Stephens’s script. The slightly distant quality of Brecht’s words when translated over-literally is replaced with filth, and fury, and a kind of almost Falstaffian ribaldry suiting the East End down to the gutter. Stephens is a playwright who, when it’s called for, can put contemporary spoken English to full obscene effect, and he relishes it here: we are left in no doubt which part of Macheath’s anatomy is doing his thinking for him. Nor are we left in any doubt as to what kind of comradeship he and the chief of police enjoyed in their army days (the production follows the current trend of removing the ‘sub’ from any homoerotic subtext in the original play; while this can be a little on the nose, it is probably worth it as long as men kissing is still even a slightly surprising sight on the stage).
In many ways, however, this is a relatively purist Brecht production: Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary set is constructed in front our eyes, managing to appear both elaborate and eye-wateringly precarious at the same time as counterweights fly across the stage and large pieces of moving scaffolding come within an inch of seemingly decapitating cast members. This is theatre not so much with its heart on its sleeve as with all its other internal organs worn for all to see. Indeed, the slapstick element, with cops running after robbers in physical sequences that play like the demented dark mirror of Benny Hill, is one of the production’s great trump cards. If the language is good at giving us the scummy undercurrent of London life, then the pictures on stage give us its equivalent: Hogarth by way of Keaton.
Fun as it is to see Brecht performed in a way we might imagine the Berliner Ensemble might have wanted it, all unpretentious bare bones and moving parts, I am not sure if the politics of the show come through clearly enough. For one thing, Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, while every bit as shark-like as his entrance number suggests, is never quite seductive enough either in antiheroic charm or in singing voice to really sell us on the corruption of aspirational capitalism. And while Rosalie Craig’s Polly is by far the standout performance, her extraordinary renditions of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and the ‘Barbara Song’ give such terrifying, vengeful bite to the gender politics of the piece that the class politics fades into the background. As with much Brecht performed today, when no longer agitprop the messages can become diffuse, and even contradictory.
Looking for contemporary resonance in the show might be a fools’ errand, but with a kind of left-wing politics with which Brecht might have been at least passingly familiar in the ascendant it is a fun game to play. Yet the exhilarating tensions of the Weimar Germany it derives from – when the world seemed in flux and the only question seemed which flavour of street politics, left or right, would triumph – are far removed from the comfortable academic lives of the left’s champions today. My chief thought watching the procession of pimps and whores and cut-throats was not only that Momentum members had never met them, but wouldn’t want to. The moral portrait Brecht paints is one of humans running around London driven by animal instincts, rats in the capitalist rat race. ‘It was for the tax advantages!’ pleads Mack to a jilted lover to explain away his sudden marriage to another woman, sounding like someone taken in by a David Cameron-era Tory party soundbite.
But if this Victorian society is hardly a Big Society, it is not a society ripe for a Corbyn revolution either. The ‘Ballad of the Easy Life’ with which Kinnear serenades us upon our return from the interval mocks ascetics and intellectuals of the bearded Islington sort. He just wants his comfortable life, and will happily walk over such people to get there. Brecht of course is parodying the cut-throats of the free market, but it is significant that Macheath is an aspirational lower-middle-class businessman. At the very least Brecht would have wanted any decent revolutionary party to understand them before changing the system. But in Norris’s production politics at street level is a carnivalesque tangle of gender struggle and disability rights, the false loyalty of a twenty-foot St George’s flag and the sudden treachery of a sex worker. There are too many people out for their own gain for the grand common purpose of a Corbyn-Labour London.
The desired class-consciousness of Brecht’s street-level theatre is not going to be the straightforward outcome on the audience of the National Theatre, I think. But this is still an excellent and timely production, and one that, given the hero’s falling foul of the offshore accounts he has attempted to keep his money safe in, should remind us to keep track of just where money is going and who stands to benefit in this (still) most capitalist of capitals.
By Fred Maynard
For more information and tickets visit The National Theatre website here.