Brecht in the midst of Brexit. Mack is back in town

At the National Theatre until 1 October 2016

NOMINATED FOR BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL (HAYDN GWYNNE) – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

Rufus Norris directs this revival of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, placing it on the streets of grey modern London. Brexit vote aside, the glorious power of the arts to unite can triumph in the fabricated world of theatre. Here on the Olivier stage German streets can easily morph into English ones, suggesting a shared cultural and artistic European heritage which we as a nation can collectively draw on, adapting and informing our own ongoing creativity. Brecht and all of his learned European friends across the ages are all welcome immigrants for our arts industry, be it for theatre productions, art, film literature, or music. It is more than a shame that those who come over to power our services, our NHS, are not always viewed by everyone in the same positive light. And sadly that is not to say the collaborative heart of the arts can beat on irrelevant of surrounding political madness – its survival will certainly be harder without EU funding and it is an industry reeling like most from the outcome of the vote.

Perhaps given the devastated angry frustration delivered to half the nation by the results of the recent referendum The Threepenny Opera is now even more of a relevant production than when I saw it when it first opened in May. With the backdrop of impoverished 1920s Weimar Germany to drive him Brecht adapted John Gay’s The Beggar Opera into The Threepenny Opera, set to music by Kurt Weill and translated by Elisabeth Hausmann. Here in Rufus Norris’s production the stage is constructed and de-constructed before you, revolving slowly, lights flashing on and off, placards carried round by cast members addressing the audience with stage directions and notice of the interval. These most obviously convey Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Through this he aimed to provoke a critical perspective, enabling watchers to appreciate the constructed nature of reality both outside the theatre as well as within it. Brecht hoped to mobilise his audience to go off and do something decent to improve the changeable surroundings they live in – perceiving their lives, just like the play they have seen, as a story they can shape. Perhaps we might sit MPs down in front of a bit of Brecht and hope they might leave inspired to show some sense and write us out of unfriendly isolation and into a brighter epilogue. As J K Rowling wrote on her website, both Leave and Remain sides were “telling us stories” about the referendum but the ending, “happy or not”, would be “written by us” (http://www.jkrowling.com/en_GB/#/timeline/on-monsters-villains-and-the-EU-referendum). A poll claims one million people now regret their choice to vote leave, whilst statistics show those communities most dependent on EU funding are in fact the ones to have voted leave, suggesting as a population we could do with being a little more engaged with our social realities.

In this adaptation of The Threepenny Opera Simon Stephens moves from the triumph of his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to something much darker and less polished, and rather lacking the entrancing magic of Curious Incident. The Threepenny Opera is not for the easily offended, it is lewd in its humour and careless with its language – particularly eloquent in its filthy insults (“f*** off poppet” and “perfumed prat” to remember a couple). The comically satirical portrayal of the type of beggary that gets results is most memorable in my mind, as the beggars gear up for the royal parade under the command of cross-dressing Mr Peachum and Mrs Peachum, clad in skin-tight scarlet. This is a cheap opera, we are assured at the beginning, there are no morals. Vicki Mortimer’s design helps to create a macabre feel, a bizarre and gruesome half-built fairground propped with undead dolls like puppets, dressed with gothy style and red string spooling out of them when things get violent. For me feeling no real emotional attachment to the characters is a strange sensation. Particularly at the end it feels a bit like watching a play-back of action, sometimes in slightly slow motion (the play as a whole could have been shortened down a bit) all calculated, ordered and premeditated. It has the unusual quality of watching a nightmarish circus in a dream, which one has no real investment in except for a general curiosity to find out how things play out, and a fascination for the odd and illicit.

Rory Kinnear is Macheath, not especially menacing, but slick, if a little too well put together. Fresh from As You Like It Rosalie Craig has the edge on him as Polly Peachum, unexpectedly punchy and astute beneath my first impression of her bespectacled naive girlishness. She sensibly opens bank accounts whilst proving her salt more than once with Mack’s boyish band of outlaws. Special mention must also go to George Ikediashi’s opening rendition of ‘Mack the Knife’.

There is something unfinished and too loosely knit about the whole thing which fails to grab me completely, but maybe this is part of its charm. It’s worth a watch but if I had to choose one thing to see at the National this summer it would be The Deep Blue Sea (more on this one soon!)