The Threepenny Opera

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.

From Official London Theatre website.
From Official London Theatre website.

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.

From Exeunt Magazine.
From Exeunt Magazine.

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.

 

 

Women in Translation Month: Poverty in France

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.

 

Despentes

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Bébé

[I read this in French, but it has been translated into English by Sian Reynolds and published by Serpent’s Tail].

Valentine, the troubled teenage daughter from a well-off Parisian family, has disappeared. The private detective her family had hired to follow her, Lucie, is out of her depth, so she partners with a creature known to everyone only as The Hyena, a secret agent with a mad gleam in her eyes, notorious for her penchant for good-looking women and her ability to make the bad boys of this world quake in their shoes. Valentine must also be the only teenager in France who doesn’t use her mobile or Facebook or any other internet platform – how to trace her?

As this strange, squabbling duo search for the girl first in Paris and then in Barcelona, they come across all walks of life. This is where the satire comes in, and Despentes spares no one. She has a ruthless eye for revealing details and a sharp tongue. She mocks and yet at the same time serves some uncomfortable home truths about the publishing world (Valentine’s Dad is an author), blended families, hustling to escape poverty, nouveau riche aspirations, the angry young people of the banlieue, the lesbian milieu, even the building boom and snobbery of Barcelona.

This book just whacks you on the head and takes you for one hell of a ride, with a blend of fierce humour, very individual voices and genuine revolt and sadness. It is to my mind a very realistic fresco of contemporary French society, with no particularly likeable characters, but certainly characters that you can understand and pity. My heart went out to the poor stepmother, Claire, who has played by the rules all of her life, lived according to other people’s expectations, and yet has encountered nothing but disappointments.

Even though I usually prefer my prose to be less direct and more measured or minimalistic, this was quite an exhilarating experience, a shock to the system.

QuinnAlice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park (transl. Alexandra Maldwynn-Davis)

I came across this book on Netgalley: despite the name of the author and the rather American-sounding main protagonist, it is translated from French. Under the original title Un palace en enfer it became a self-publishing phenomenon, reaching No. 1 on the Kindle bestseller list in France in 2013. Then again, France has a much lower rate of e-book penetration, so perhaps the people reading it were on the younger side. The plot is unrealistic to say the least, but it’s a bit of escapist fun.

One might call this ‘Despentes lite’: it too portrays life on the margins of society, of people whom many might call ‘losers’, but it is a book with a much more optimistic message. Fairy tales can happen. Single mothers on benefits with little education can make it good, trick the Mafia, battle corrupt officials and still bathe four children and put them to bed. The ‘trailer park’ is actually a single caravan parked outside the former railway station in a town in Southern France and sounds quite idyllic, but the language and attitude is defiantly that of what the Americans would call ‘white trailer trash’. I did like the quote: ‘People always say money isn’t everything… Don’t believe a word of it. It’s not as simple as all that. It might not buy you love, but it lifts your spirits…’

For a more thoughtful (yet just as funny) depiction of life in poverty in France, I would recommend Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls. Or just read the original: Despentes herself.