Sometimes in the theatre I look at my watch and hope the play will end soon. Just occasionally -- it happened last night -- I enjoy myself so much that when the show ends I want to see it all over again immediately, fearing I may have missed something. Make no mistake: this National Theatre version of the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera is a theatrical and musical triumph for Rufus Norris and his team.
Brecht hasn't exactly slipped down a memory hole in British theatre, but he seems much less of a towering figure than he was in the late 20th century. In the last few years I've seen three or four Brecht revivals in London, notably a fascinating production by Richard Jones of The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Young Vic. But we don't revive the Brecht/Weill combination as often as we should. As Dan Rebellato writes in his programme note for the show, '...there is no one more boring in the theatre than the person who affects to be bored by Brecht'. In my view that is partly the result of our increasingly monoglot Anglophone culture, in which foreign languages are perceived as just too difficult. Brecht can be infuriating, but I prefer him to Brexit.
Brecht and Weill first got under my skin in the 1970s, when I paid a couple of pounds for an LP set of a 1958 recording of The Threepenny Opera with a cast led by Lotte Lenya. I also have a CD of a 1990 recording with Rene Kollo and Ute Lemper in the cast. With the original tunes and German lyrics lodged firmly in my brain, I was a bit apprehensive that the National Theatre's revival, an adaptation by Simon Stephens, might fall short of the razor-sharp original. But I was hooked from start to finish. Stephens's original plays are not at all to my taste but his skill in adapting difficult material such as The Curious Incident is second to none, and his version captures the biting satirical edge of Brecht's writing. He has put some flesh on the bones of Brecht's often flimsy characterisation, particularly of the secondary characters, without departing from the original.
Rufus Norris has succeeded in balancing all the elements of the original story and extracting something fresh from each layer of Brecht's complex work. There's a palpable sense of Weimar Germany in the design, with a big debt to the satirical paintings and drawings of Otto Dix. But there is also a strong sense of London, the setting for John Gay's original Beggar's Opera, which I managed to see a couple of weeks ago in a production by RADA students. Vicki Mortimer's set is built around mobile ladders and a bewildering array of old-fashioned scenery flats, which are unpainted on both sides. Realism and naturalism are cast aside. Norris knows exactly how to play the Brechtian game of Verfremdung (alienation) and does it with gusto. This 'opera for beggars' not only sends up conventional opera by ridiculing its happy endings, but becomes an experiment in meta-theatre, always playing with the audience's perceptions.
Rory Kinnear is memorably sinister as Macheath, channelling the tradition of actors who have played East End hard men, from Ray Winstone to Ross Kemp. Haydn Gwynne is terrific as Mrs Peachum, slinking around the stage in a red dress that gives her a hint of mutton-dressed-as-lamb -- a woman with a certain past. Nick Holder's Mr Peachum, rotund and sexually ambiguous, is unambiguously evil while Rosalie Craig (Polly Peachum) plays her not as a virginal innocent but as a capable woman with a hint of ruthlessness. All of them sing beautifully (to my untutored ear), though the biggest round of applause goes to Sharon Small (Jenny Diver) for her delivery of Surabaya Johnny.
Unlike some recent National Theatre productions where the set has stifled the actors, this one allows them the freedom to deliver complex and nuanced performances. The music is wonderful and so is the choreography. Rather than being drowned in Germanic seriousness, this production fully exploits the comedy in Brecht's original work, without giving in to the temptation to update it with contemporary topical jokes. There is almost an echo of Gilbert and Sullivan in some scenes. Brecht's political message is allowed to speak for itself, without any lapses into sentimentality. It's an edgy work that retains its edge while always remaining a piece of popular entertainment. As Dan Rebellato says in the programme, 'We need Brecht. We need him more than ever'.