The Threepenny Opera

Director Wayne Jordan restores the satirical and human bite to an opera of opulence and economy

 

The Threepenny Opera

Gate Theatre, Dublin

****

Nobody gives a better criticism of performance and the law of diminishing returns than Mr Peachum, the proprietor of a begging racket in 19th-century London (or thereabouts). “No one can make their own misery convincing,” Mark O’Regan’s enjoyably weasely Peachum instructs a cowering beggar as he downgrades his rags and “establishes a method” to arouse the ghost of human sympathy. That is also Bertolt Brecht in a nutshell.

There was always an acrid irony in an anti-capitalist opera delivered to an approving Weimar Republic in its dying days. Even Kurt Weill’s abrasively contrapuntal score would give us safer standards such as Mack The Knife. The shark may have teeth like razors, but it also seemed to lose its bite: this study in subversion thinning into Cabaret, Chicago and all that jazz. Can Mack’s blade still be sharpened?

The answer, together with the justification for the Gate’s satisfyingly strange new staging, may be conveyed by David Shannon’s Street Singer, whom director Wayne Jordan appoints as the play’s narrator, when he announces “an opulence only beggars could dream of and an economy only beggars could afford”. If that didn’t already sound wickedly close to the bone, Jordan’s accomplished cast speak almost exclusively in Dublin accents. Black ties and coattails may suggest wealth; fishnets and cross-dressing, a Weimar-indebted idea of debauchery; and a flicker of jazz hands a good degree of fun – but the dominant note here is one of rage.

You see it in Shannon, adding an accusatory pivot to Mack The Knife, or in the vengeful fantasy of Pirate Jenny, which Jordan wisely hands to Hilda Fay’s gaunt prostitute Jenny, not because she has a better voice than Charlotte McCurry’s excellent Polly Peachum – but because she has a better motive. Women also tend to eclipse men. Polly, seduced by Mack’s brutishness, becomes efficiently brutal in conducting his business. Ruth McGill delivers a a performance so enjoyable as love rival Lucy Brown she even gets a bonus song (sung in German, it’s one of the production’s giddy highpoints). That makes David Ganly’s Macheath, played as an underworld combination of Nidge and Tony Soprano, seem oddly underpowered, but Mack’s power has always been more ascribed than conspicuous.

Brechtsperts will look for the author’s famous “alienation effect” in the face-front delivery of the cast, in Cathal Synnott’s remarkably faithful realisation of a prickly score with an eight-piece band and an ensemble who sing heroically (and affectingly) unamplified, in the clockwork motion of Philip Connaughton’s choreography or the entrancing flatness of Ciarán O’Melia’s bravely stark design. But while we’re never allowed to forget this is a performance, there’s something subtly and profoundly human about its effect. When The Canon Song, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and What Keeps Mankind Alive? release an uncommonly snarling energy – or a performer abruptly concludes her song with a self-conscious blink as if to say, “what just came over me?” – there remains a surprising liberty in The Threepenny Opera’s poverty. Sometimes, it seems, beggars can be choosers.

Ends November 2