Overnight success: a theatre becomes the city of Mahagonny in 12 hours

Witnessing the highly pressurised construction of the immersive city of Mahagonny for six performances of Brecht’s opera is impressive – it is amazing what you can achieve without planning permission

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to Dublin, for six performances of Brecht’s opera. Video: Daniel O'Connor

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 01:00

In Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s satirical opera, first performed in 1930, the city of Mahagonny appears instantaneously, as if by black magic. “Within a few weeks a city had arisen,” reads Brecht’s title card, “and the first sharks and harpies were making themselves at home.” Such is the appeal of this Sin City, an amusement town devoted to pleasure and excess: if you found it, they will come.

This work would begin the creative partnership between Brecht and Weill, and would help to codify Brecht’s aesthetic of “epic theatre” and manage to castigate both the excesses of Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. But one of the most striking lessons of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is that it is amazing what you can achieve without planning permission.

On a beautiful summer morning in Dublin, a new city seems to be springing up at ferocious speed. Through the open doors of the loading bay of the Olympia Theatre, pedestrians watch a bustle of motion and listen to the sounds of industry: people in high-visibility jackets clamber around a scaffolding, the quick whine of a drill and hollow clank of metal, the sharp scent of freshly sawn wood. It is almost a parody of a theatrical get-in, the time in which a new production enters its venue, crammed with construction and undertaken at double speed.

That, however, is a taste of the show to come, a co-production between Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company, supported by the Sky Arts Ignition Award, which had always intended to make its Mahagonny out of the exposed apparatus of the stage.

“Mahagonny – does not exist,” goes an early version of the opera, Mahagonny Songspiele. “Mahagonny – is not a location. Mahagonny – is just an invented locution.” (The name means “spider web”.) To see the Olympia Theatre begin to transform, however, is to feel Mahagonny spinning together. The auditorium has been gently reconfigured by the architects Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, stripping out one bank of seats entirely to accommodate a 39-piece orchestra, while mingling audience seating and performance space to create an immersive environment.

From the moment an old truck breaks down, stranding its three enterprising fugitives – a widow called Leocadia Begbick, Fatty the Bookkeeper and the divinely named Trinity Moses – in the middle of nowhere, the orchestra, singers and lusty appetites of pleasure-seekers flood the space. They have you surrounded.


Parker’s plan

Lynne Parker, the artistic director of Rough Magic and the director of this co-production, had set her sights on the Olympia for the project. Her company had considered staging the opera, a cautionary tale of capitalistic excess with a solemn destructive moral. At one point, for maximum political resonance, they considered staging it in a Nama building before discarding the idea as too blunt.

“The Olympia auditorium is an Aladdin’s cave,” Parker told me late last year. “It has this beautiful, Victorian, opulent interior. I just thought, there’s a pile of riches sitting in front of me, why not use that? Why not build a city using the infrastructure of the building?”

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