The Threepenny Opera

AF24 The Threepenny Opera photo by Moritz HaaseAt Thursday evening’s second performance of Adelaide Festival’s The Threepenny Opera, some audience members left after the first two acts, not too many, but enough to reflect the rather long and laborious trek through the 95 minutes before the interval which seemed to feel like the evening’s scheduled 3 hours.

In this Berliner Ensemble production, not even former festival director and director extraordinaire Barrie Kosky could save the appealing but sporadically sagging nature of Kurt Weill’s music and librettist Bertolt Brecht’s jabbing satirical lyrics. The sometimes poor alignment of English translations with the often quick-fire spoken German was a distraction.

But, perhaps it was a combination of respect for the performers and the ticket prices paid keeping the audience back in their seats – anything between $189 and $259. Excuse my focus on figures just for the moment but, at an average $200 ticket price, that equates to around $300,000 for the close to 1500-capacity Her Majesty’s Theatre and an eye-watering $1.5M across its 5 performances.

Now that seems like avarice at work, still endlessly alive and needling society just as Weill and Brecht highlight its effect through source material that deals with social inequity on a broader scale. Lower class crooks and whores have their equivalents in the bourgeois better-off and captains of capitalism. The duo’s anti-capitalist perspective and socialist conscience bristles in The Threepenny Opera.

Closely based on the early 18th century satirical ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, it premiered in 1928 on the 200th anniversary of the original production. Almost 100 years later, there is no short of pertinence in this three-act work but, at the very least, it could do with cuts that bring it in line with the original’s more concise 90 minutes or so.

Kosky certainly shows his knack for reliable and illuminating directorial commentary but here it often grinds over time and edges on parodying the parody. And too often the comic elements are drawn out to tiresome lengths, messing with the theatrical momentum.

There are occasional islands of novel slapstick humour but, by the final act, it’s all too much when London’s chief of police, Tiger Brown, wheels in a plate of asparagus at a snail’s pace for the protagonist Macheath’s last meal before his hanging. It begins promisingly.

As The Moon over Soho, Dennis Jankowiak’s sparkled face peers from high through a silvery stage curtain. He sings the popularised song – about a murderer, thief rapist and arsonist, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife) – seductively and grandly.

Thereon, the creative team of Rebecca Ringst (sets), Dinah Ehm (costumes) and Ulrich Eh (lighting) conjure the darkness and cabaretesque with great simplistic panache. But as striking as Ringst’s lofty maze-like geometric framework looks – a kind of abstracted take on the nooks and crannies of the city – Kosky’s cast feels stuck navigating it.

It’s part of the many excellent ideas invested that unfortunately wear out their welcome and value, not unlike some of the performances themselves. Not so Gabriel Schneider, a lithe, magnetic soul in his glove-fit portrayal of street-bandit-boss Macheath as he scrambles and adapts to every new situation in a concoction of charisma, clout and shrewdness.

Schneider’s Macheath is fabulous and despicable but ultimately excusable and he makes it easy to celebrate the reprieve Macheath gets when the noose disappears and a LOVE ME sign looms over him. There are more unsavoury characters than Macheath.

In the business of screwing the beggars of London and conspiring to have Macheath hanged, Jonathan Peachum is dapperly played by Tilo Nest, a ringmaster-like showman who relishes the spotlight. Kathrin Wehlisch is a delightfully comedic pantomime presence as Brown and captures the chief of police’s friendship with Mack from their army days in India adorably.

In business with her husband, Peachum’s wife Celia is glamorously styled by Constanze Becker but less than halfway through her Act 2 Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit (Ballad of Sexual Dependency) the damage was done. Peachum’s daughter Polly, who agrees to marry Mack after knowing him for just 5 days, is sympathetically drawn by Cynthia Micas but Mack’s other two female interests are an underdone Jenny (Julia Berger) and an overdone Lucy (Laura Blazer).

I wanted to wring a few necks. Does the audience have to doubt itself in feeling uncertain if voices are meant to be out of tune for the purpose of putting traditional opera on the chopping block? We know Wagner and Weill are polar opposites but if one is going to say anything at all it needs to be done and sung well enough to grip the audience.

Weill claimed that “music cannot further the action of the play or create its background, but achieves its proper value when it interrupts the action at the right moments.”

I beg to differ. There are many great tunes in Weill’s mix of cabaret, jazz, klezmer and folk inspired music – the small band of seven conducted by Adam Benzwi deliver them with much verve – but they don’t always gel.

There are times when they indeed interrupt, frustratingly, and the work feels like watching a variety show. Ongoing attempts at playful onstage chit chat with the band and audience weren’t always helping in that respect either. A 1500-strong audience would let you know.

The Threepenny Opera began life at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm where the Berliner Ensemble now has its home. It’s a venue half the capacity of Her Majesty’s Theatre where it has a greater chance to connect with its audience.

But take a knife to it, cut it down, keep it more intimate and its chance to endure, even thrive, over another 100 years might be possible.

The Threepenny Opera
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Grote Street, Adelaide
Performance: Thursday 7 March 2024
Season: 6 – 10 March 2024

Image: The Threepenny Opera – photo by Moritz Haase

Review: Paul Selar