Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, in association with the Victorian Opera, are currently performing Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera until June 17.
Freely adapted from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, it was two centuries before the libretto was translated from its original English into German by Brecht’s mistress Elisabeth Hauptmann, in 1927.
Collaborating with opera composer Kurt Weill, Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera debuted in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, soon to become the home of his famous theatre company, The Berliner Ensemble. After a troubled rehearsal period filled with conflict, fleeing actresses and rushed re-writes, the work arguably introduced a new theatre form.
Malthouse Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera became a sellout season before opening night, largely based on the drawing power of its two stars, Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis. Part play, part cabaret, part opera, part play with music, The Threepenny Opera is a mishmash of splendour and inconsistency.
Episodic in form, Threepenny consists of dozens of small, self-contained scenes that generally keep the pace rolling and audience entertained. But while the plot construction is far from perfect, make no doubt about it, Eddie Perfect definitely is. As the protagonist and uber-criminal Macheath, Perfect’s strong and versatile voice is well-suited to Brecht’s style of song. Perfect dazzles the audience with his declamatory, larger than life manner, reminiscent for Australian audiences of the recent television series Underbelly, which glamourises the criminal in society. Capsis is also fabulous as Jenny the prostitute.
Set in a boxing ring, several portable stages rotate to form many locations, ranging from a wedding in a horse stable to a prison and even a strippers’ den. The sordid lowlife of the underworld is all too apparent and the costumes and character make-up are suitably garish and over the top, matching the caricatured personas of those beneath them.
Malthouse Theatre’s production plays homage to Brecht’s Epic Theatre style with placards introducing songs, direct character address to the audience, stage hands in open view, narration, and songs conveying the work’s themes and messages.
But there are also problems. Raimondo Cortese’s adaptation includes many references to Melbourne suburbs and place names. Those in the audience who live in these suburbs briefly giggle at the reference and in this sense, the work has some immediacy and relevance. But in truth, it only cheapens the text and reduces it to farce. If you’re going to talk about a whorehouse in North Bulleen, you better make sure you take out the dozen references in the plot to the upcoming coronation parade the next morning, because there ain’t no King and Queen living in 21st century Melbourne.
The cast also consists of a mixture of classically trained operatic voices, cabaret voices and lesser trained voices. While there were impressive moments where the whole company sung together, the bulk of the singing in this show is solos and duets. Threepenny Opera or not, the operatic voices in this production clashed with voices like those of Perfect and merely added to the work’s inconsistencies. Another issue saw some scenes that were fast and furious, while others were a little slow and tedious. Effective contrast or unevenness?
The Threepenny Opera is no Mother Courage, that’s for sure. Brecht had only begun embracing Marxism in 1926, so Threepenny does not contain his usual potent dose of didacticism. Hurried to the stage or not, it became Brecht’s biggest commercial success. It will likely become Malthouse Theatre’s commercial success of 2010, as well.
Let’s face it, Brecht is idolised by many and loathed by others. His works are so ‘in your face’ and often intellectual, it’s hard to sit back, relax and enjoy. While Brecht’s works are not everyone’s cup of tea, Malthouse Theatre has nevertheless produced an entertaining production of The Threepenny Opera. If you come to the theatre for Eddie Perfect’s performance alone, you will not regret it.
This production marks the final work of Malthouse Theatre’s artistic director Michael Kantor.