Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera (SUDS) runs at PACT in Erskineville from July 3 – July 13 2013. Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill, directed by Clemence Williams.

This is a really fantastic production of The Threepenny Opera. I’m never quite sure if this is the kind of thing Bertolt Brecht would like people to be saying about his work – maybe he would take “fantastic” as a sign I enjoyed it too much instead of it making me think deeply about money and property and capitalism and all that jazz – but I’ll stand by it. This is a very clever production: simple, elegant, and thoughtful. Director Clemence Williams has done a fantastic job bringing this incredibly difficult piece of theatre to the stage.

One of the defining principles of Brechtian theatre, often called epic or dialectical theatre, is the Verfremdungseffekt. This serves to ensure that the audience do not become too deeply immersed in the story of the play: they are always alienated from it, actively aware that it is an artifice, with the idea being that this will allow them to see the story lurking beneath. To put it really simply, the purpose of this effect is to ensure that the audience cannot suspend disbelief.

This is actually really, really hard to do, because as viewers, we are so used to suspending disbelief. The musical seems like kind of an ideal form for the Verfremdungseffekt to be achieved – what is more unrealistic than people breaking into spontaneous, perfectly rhyming, perfectly scanning song, often in synchronisation with a large number of different people? However, with the rise and immense popularity of the big scale musical, we as an audience have come to take this as a given. We are perhaps too familiar with the form. Often, the musical is the only form of theatre some people consume, with songs becoming almost an integral part of the immersive theatre experience. How, then, is the Verfremdungseffekt to be achieved?

In this production, this problem is solved by emphasising the “threepenny” aspect of The Threepenny Opera. It is only fitting that a show so concerned with the politics of poverty be gloriously low-budget, and this production embraces it totally. Operatic synopses are projected on a white wall via an old school overhead projector, handwritten in black marker. The set is almost entirely boxes and ropes. There are empty plates at Macheath and Polly’s wedding feast. And when the performers do jarringly break into song, the artifice of the musical is highlighted. There are no Britney-style mikes and choreographed dancers here – instead, the actors must retreat to the microphones at the sides of the stage, or wait as one is lowered from the ceiling on a rope. One is reminded of Tony Kushner’s stage direction in Angels in America: “it’s OK if the wires show”. Here, one feels, the wires showing are a necessity. As we follow the story of Macheath and Peachum and all the various women they claim to own in one way or another, we become aware of another deeper level of meaning: a broader meditation on property, on poverty, on morality, and on capitalism.

This show is wonderfully cast. Finn Davis is fabulously slimy as Peachum, a sinister Dickensian villain who will not stand for another man taking possession of his daughter, whom he perceives as his own personal property. Patrick Morrow is similarly excellent as Macheath, charismatic and amoral, treating both his criminal career and his career as a seducer as a kind of art. These are the two poles around which the drama revolves: Peachum likes to exploit the poor and Macheath likes to exploit women. The performances offered by these two actors are perfectly pitched: engaging, but not so consuming they we are not aware they are acting. I’d also like to mention the four lead actresses – Caitlin West (Mrs Peachum), Julia Robertson (Polly Peachum), Bridget Haberecht (Lucy Brown), and Zerrin Craig-Adams (Low Dive Jenny) – who turn in outstanding performances. And the ensemble is great as well. Casting actors against gender type – some of the whores are played by male actors, some of the gang members by female actors – was a particularly clever (and typically Brechtian) move.

There are probably a few things I could nitpick about this production if I really put my mind to it, but overall, I don’t have anything negative to say. This is a genuinely exceptional show, cleverly directed and excellently performed. The first time I attempted to see it, on opening night, I was foiled by a train suspension that left me stuck in Wollongong. I am so, so glad that I got another opportunity to attend, because it was definitely worth it.

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