Earlier this month, as a reward for all of the hard relocation work, I treated myself to a play at the National Theatre. It was an old favourite of mine, Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, in a new translation by Simon Stephens, directed by Rufus Norris, with Rory Kinnear as Macheath. It was a canny blend of cabaret, jazz, dissonance and va-va-voom to infuriate and entertain. Not quite the escapism one might wish for in a play, but then Brecht was never about making the audience feel good.
Of course, the play is made for London and its inhabitants. The original story by John Gay (1728), was set among the whores, pimps and criminals of Newgate, full of allusions to the streets of the East End, satirizing politics, injustice and corruption at all levels of society. Much of it still sounds familiar today. Of course, Brecht took it a step further: from Gay’s romantic comedy, laced with social commentary, he turned his Threepenny Opera (and let’s not forget that Elisabeth Hauptmann was practically a co-author for this, but has since been denied credit) into an acerbic social critique, with elements of romantic comedy.Well, if by ‘romantic’ you mean a quick fumble and a slap… But there certainly was plenty of social commentary to make in Berlin in 1928, when it premiered. It was performed continuously until 1933, when Brecht had to go into exile, but had already become an international success by that point.
With the world increasingly resembling the 1930s, this play is more topical than ever, and this energetic production points out parallels to futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, anything-but-meritocracy promotion systems, inward-looking little England patriotism and flagrant social inequality without ramming the messages down your throat.
The two elderly ladies sitting next to me were muttering under their breath: ‘Really, is all this bad language necessary?’ but to my mind, yes, it is. Brecht’s original exuberance and desire to shock are all intact, even if some of the texts and storyline have been altered . This is all about over-the-top characters and situations (I particularly liked the red wool pouring out of wounds when a character was knifed). It’s all about filth and squalor, nasty characters chock-full with self-interest. The production even stuck to the original orchestra of just 7 musicians, which gave the musical interludes and singing a dissonance and drama that fitted so well with the on-stage action.
Confession time: although I’ve never seen the Threepenny Opera performed live on stage before, I’ve been obsessed with it since 1990. I read the libretto and the later novel by Brecht based on it (in which he does go on and on, rather, to explain his intentions). I watched most of the film adaptations but it was when I found one of the best recordings of it in German, with the legendary Lotte Lenya singing, and started singing it with all my German friends in Cambridge, that it became something very special to me. (I texted one of those friends at the interval of the show with a lyric, and he replied straightaway with the next part of it, such is the power of that connection between us). The reason why it resonated so much with me is that it perfectly described the confusion and materialism of broken post-Communist society, where not only every person but the whole country seemed to be up for sale.
Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral – First comes the feeding, then the ethics.
Natürlich hab ich leider recht/ Die Welt ist arm, der Mensch ist schlecht./Wir wären gut – anstatt so roh/Doch die Verhältnisse, sie sind nicht so. – Of course, you see that I am right/Life’s a bitch and man is shite./We could be good instead of hell,/But circumstances don’t bode well. [my own translation, as I couldn’t find this new script online anywhere.]
In the end, Brecht’s cynicism was justified. Germany was engulfed by even darker shadows in the 1930s. By the mid 1990s, I’d lost all hope of leading a decent life in a country so hell-bent on its own destruction and that of its younger generation. I just hope that this time, for present-day London, he proves more entertaining than prophetic.
If you do want to see this inventive production for yourself, it will be broadcast live on the 22nd of September in many cinemas across the UK via the National Theatre Live programme.