‘Dark, full of gallows humor and devilment': Graeae’s confrontational ‘The Threepenny Opera’ delights

Not quite opera, not quite rock ‘n’ roll but certainly worth more than three pennies: The Threepenny Opera — being staged by Graeae with Birmingham Repertory, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Theatre Company — is a re-write of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Beggar’s Opera. It is dark, full of gallows humor and devilment.

With a story line as ancient as Old Nick himself (pimp, pervert, murderer and playboy Macheath — otherwise known as the Captain, otherwise known as Mack the Knife) marries the poor, besotted daughter of Mr. Peacham, the only man in town with the ability or wherewithal to undo him … thereby throwing everyone into a state of emotional turmoil. Toss into the mix the fact that not only is Mack married to another woman as well, but also has a string of harlots, whores and other mistresses dotted about town.

The chaotic nature of the beggars of the show is echoed in the music, which is dark and brooding, interspersed only occasionally with uplifting snippets. The song “Mack The Knife” is sung menacingly by all the cast at the beginning of the show and there are few known songs other than this. The acting and vocals in the show are wonderful and very clear in this version.

If you expect opera in its perceived form, forget it. This is the devil’s opera. From the moment the audience arrives, things take on a different perspective. The theater has been taken over by a crew of beggars, pimps and crooks. The audience members are the marks and if you think for one moment you are going to get away with a quiet night watching from your seat — forget that, too.

Press tickets included a free meal — which turned out to be a trip to a soup kitchen set up and run by the beggars. A motley crew of press, cast and the public were thrown together at close quarters. The sheer volume of human bodies crushed together in a small bar area made an uncomfortable start to the evening’s performance — and this was the aim.

The theater bar, foyer and auditorium was bedecked with banners decrying the recent government’s decision to withdraw ILF (the Independent Living Fund) which so many disabled people in the UK rely on in order to remain independent in their homes. As the audience — which, as it was press night, contained many people who write for newspapers and columns — filtered in to their seats, they were greeted by a set of beggars leading chants of “No ifs, no buts, no disability cuts,” which delighted some and threw others completely.

Some might feel it is wrong for a theater production company to highjack a production in order to get a current political message across but Graeae, a theater company made up of the complete spectrum of human kind, is no stranger to fighting for the cause of disability rights and they see it as a chance to make people more aware of what is going on.

Graeae is hell bent on breaking down barriers to performing music and acting, and blowing apart any preconceptions about limitations due to physical impairment. They place actors in roles purely based on ability and put deaf, disabled and able bodied artists together center stage. The musicians act, actors pick up instruments. That is the way it is. The integration in the show of both sign language and audio description means every audience member is engaged and feels considered. This leads to an overwhelming sense of inclusion and everyone is potentially equal.

There is a collectiveness onstage which reflects humanity in all its glory. If people feel uncomfortable with that — good. Graeae will continue until there is no longer any qualm about equality in music and drama.

In the show the king of the beggars, Macheath, marries Polly — daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Peacham, who own the emporium which equips and helps beggars find a pitch (in return for a rake of the profits). It is a tightly run operation and the Peachams are shocked at Polly’s choice of husband. Polly may be besotted but they have seen Mack the Knife’s work — mutilated, raped, pillaged and beaten people of the street and know him for the bullying philanderer he is. So, they plan to undo him.

However, it is hard when even the police chief is a friend of Macheath’s: They served in battle together so have a deep bond between them. Even the local vicar has been bought. Eventually, of course, Mack is caught with two wives and makes too many enemies. He goes on the run, but his penchant for regularly visiting one particular whorehouse is his undoing. He is arrested and sentenced to hang. So Macheath is hung — or is he? You have to go and see the show to find out what happens, but safe to say, it is a surprise.

The cast are ribald, musically talented and their enthusiasm nearly lifts the roof. It is impossible to pick out any one because each member, whether in a leading role or not, plays their part to the full. The music is deep, and the lyrics obscene at times, but it is also totally brilliant. Even songs you thought you know like “Mack the Knife” take on a sinister tone when you see the lyrics in all their lurid glory roll across the scene as the song is performed slowed down, relished and deliciously teased out.

The choice of story coupled with the music and playwriting skills of Weill and Brecht, respectively, makes this a special show. At the same time, the cast, directors and musicians have definitely added a few twists and turns to the story which the original writers did not put in, let alone John Gay on upon whose original Beggar’s Opera this new work is based. So, if you are wanting original, this is for you but if you want the original, go see another production.

The Threepenny Opera is at the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until March 22, 2014, then it goes to Birmingham Repertory Theatre from March 27-April 12, and to the West Yorkshire Playhouse from April 24-May 10. Catch it if you can – you are missing a treat, if not. Oh, and that grating sound? That is probably Messrs. Brecht and Weill turning in their graves.

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Sammy Stein

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