If there’s one thing my studies have taught me over the years about Bertolt Brecht, it’s that, if he were alive, he probably wouldn’t care in the slightest what I said about his play in this review. What he would care about, though, is how it affected my worldview leaving the theatre. Walking to the bus station, a beggar in a phone booth stopped me and asked me for a pound. When I asked him what for, he said he was desperate to make a phone call and had no money. Any other day, I would have said I’m sorry and walked away as fast as my boots could take me. But instead, for some reason I can’t fathom, I smiled, gave him a pound, and said, “I hope they pick up.”
This is a production worth every pence. You’ll see nothing like it anywhere else in Notthingham
After I reached the end of the street I turned around and saw, sure enough, the beggar put the pound into the payphone and start dialing, thus erasing any doubts I had about his sincerity. I cannot give the Nottingham Playhouse’s production of The Threepenny Opera any higher compliment than that. And they deserve it.
The Threepenny Opera, on the surface, details the downfall of Mac The Knife–a womanizing, immoral, but charming rogue who controls the majority of organized crime in London. With his oldest friend (the chief of police) keeping him out of a prison cell, Mac delights in aspiring to be a gentlemen (stealing from the wealthy, wearing a tuxedo with white gloves and a cane, etc.) while wooing any chaste woman who looks his way.
The play opens with Mac preparing to wed his latest conquest, the idealistic young Polly, who also happens to be the daughter of the “richest poor man” in London Mr. Peachum. Vile Mr. Peachum, you see, runs a beggar business, teaching the poor how beg while eliciting maximum sympathy. Upset that Mac has stolen their business’ best advertising (“Do you think this lowly business of ours would survive a week if…our customers had nothing better than our legs to look at?”), Peachum and his alcoholic wife strive to get Mac into a prison cell/noose and off the streets.
This production’s masterstroke is in this casting…all actors suffer from a disability.
But Brecht doesn’t want you to necessarily care about the characters or the story, and neither should you. What’s important is the ideas: the hypocrisies of capitalism, the dire state of the world’s poor and disenfranchised, and social change. And I’m happy to proclaim that this production wholeheartedly succeeds.
This production’s masterstroke is in this casting. Somehow, someway, these guys found actors who were not only incredibly emotive and engaging (and dynamite singers), but who all suffered from a disability. Mr. Peachum is in a wheelchair, Mrs. Peachum is blind, Mac himself is missing fingers, and the magnificent, riotous 4th wall-shattering narrator is seemingly paralyzed from the neck down; the theme of disability is weaved seamlessly into Brecht’s narrative, forcing the audience to confront what’s considered uncomfortable, and further highlighting the struggles of the less fortunate. The most inspiring casting I’ve ever seen, and their raw energy is nothing short of heroic.
The theme of disability is weaved seamlessly into Brecht’s narrative
The set is appropriately Brechtian, with all the seams of of artifice proudly on display from the naked rear stage wall to the loud, obnoxious, sometimes out of tune instrumentation (all played live by the cast–a lovely touch). The music’s not something you’ll hum in your sleep, but the sheer fervor in which it’s played will certainly get your attention. The inventive use of projection screens certainly helps too, with each line shining above the stage like subtitles. Unfortunately, this can distract from the engaging performances (but knowing Brecht, that’s probably supposed to be the point). It’s good that in the 21st century a company is still willing to adhere to Brecht’s esoteric tendencies, but occasionally you just have to step back and know when enough distraction is enough. Too much and even the capacity for thematic analysis is lost.
Minor gripes aside, this is a production worth every pence. You’ll see nothing like it anywhere else in Notthingham, and potentially (with this one-of-a-kind cast) never again. With the Playhouse soon losing it’s government funding, I know every penny (or three) would be greatly appreciated. Brecht would be proud of you; my recommendation, follow his heartfelt advice and lend a helping hand, because Nottingham needs a place for performances like this. We should consider ourselves lucky to have them.
For more information, visit the website here.