Opera : Razzle dazzle theatre set to oompapa jazz
For a spooky moment as the final scene of The Threepenny Opera unfolded, I began to wonder if director Michael Hurst and designer John Verryt had snuck off to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and had come back to twist this scene into a stunning ironic riposte to Priscilla ... but, no, it really must have been coincidental.
But that masterly moment capped off a magnificent night of razzle dazzle theatre, set in a scary and ugly criminal underworld to wonderfully oompapa jazz. This may turn out to be the production of the year in this city.
It was an unusual week in Auckland, with the successive openings of La Boheme at the Aotea Centre, Priscilla at the Civic Theatre and Threepenny Opera at the Maidment. I missed La Boheme but my colleague, critic John Daly-Peoples, says it was a superbly realised production of a modernised tragic opera.
I laughed and clapped my way through Priscilla, an outrageously costumed comedy that purports to be about drag queens on a road trip (based on the 1990s film) but largely dumps the seamier side of their lives in favour of beautifully sung disco. The production is destined to be sold out.
But then came The Threepenny Opera, a dark musical with outrageous ideas about morality, written deliberately and provocatively to make a 1920s audience in Germany think (and take action). This was an era of desperate poverty, hyper inflation and the shortlived Weimar republic. Playwright Brecht (if one believes he wrote it – biographers say his girlfriends and mistresses did most of his claimed research and writing) was a hardline communist , who is these days much criticised for following the party line in the Stalinist years.
But after 60 years, could a play that basically suggests that in a morally bankrupt society, crime is just another hardworking business and compassion no longer exists, have anything to say to a modern audience?
Well, it turns out, yes. Brecht wrote plays in a style originally known as epic theatre in which he essentially presented ideas for an audience to consider (well, yes, often commie ideas), flossied up with songs and often circus-like performance but with bare sets and stripped back presentation. He wanted audiences to think hard about social ills and how they could be fixed – and then go fix them.
Sixty years on, it seems we still have enough social ills for his theme to have an impact on us. But the world has changed and the world's answers to social ills have changed. Brecht's solution, communism, is not likely to occur to a typical typical Auckland audience ....
This production particularly emphasises the plight of prostitutes and graphically demonstrates the drug and alcohol fuelled and violent world in which they have lived. One wonders how people will think about this in an era where prostitution has been legalised? But there are, in all fairness, more than enough other societal evils to be considered when you think over this production's themes.
I couldn't pin down which era Hurst was setting the production in. It was perhaps the 1970s but some costumes reached into the 1980s, and the use of stand microphones could take the era back another 30 years. In the story, references are made to the upcoming coronation of King William, which could be taken as looking ahead to the future or a reference back into the German past (Kaiser Wilhelm).
The Maidment Theatre has never looked more interesting than in this production. Designer Verryt has stripped out curtains, stage front and side walls leaving a brick-edged space, partfilled by seats for the audience placed on both sides and a back corner for the band but with naked lights and beams and hanging ropes. By turns this set becomes a criminal business, a warehouse with a wedding breakfast and a sudden, surprising chandelier, a whorehouse, a jail, a gallows, then a kind of redemptive mound with dramatic wall drops and q flying angel (well, police officer).
The space is used to great effect by the 27-strong cast. They move about as in a Brueghal painting, where lives go on unconnected to the main event, until they are needed for particular scenes or as property people carrying the microphones back and forth or building a layer of tables into a jail structure.
The ensemble nature of this production reaches its peak in the two endings (Brecht wants you to take your pick) in a couple of masterly choreographed showstopper song and dances that delighted the audience. Why the second, What Keeps a Man Alive, isn't as famous as the best known song of this musical Mack the Knife, is a puzzle after this rendition.
The lyrics of the songs add to the scariness in the production. In one song, the prostitute Jenny Diver sings about her abortion. In Mack the Knife, it's murders. In Pirate Jenny, it's a revenge fantasy that has townspeople killed by a pirate ship under a woman's orders. They build on a plot about the womaniser, murderer and thief Macheath who maliciously marries Polly, the daughter of underworld businessman Mr Peachum. (Peachum and his wife issue licenses (and props such as artificial stumps) to beggars around the city and take a cut.)
The couple seek revenge and Macheath is arrested ...
This production is carefully orchestrated from the deliberately ramshackle start to the triumphant anthem at the end. The musical opens with Jenny Diver, the prostitute (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), wandering drunkenly on to the stage as property people are still moving ladders and plugging in lights.
As she starts singing the sinister Mack the Knife, various musicians stroll in and start up their instruments, one seemingly arriving late. As the song ends, a couple of heavies come forward and drag Jenny away, thumping her as they go ... Ward-Lealand's performance is touching and her singing scorching.
Peter Elliott plays the thoroughly enjoyably nasty businessman, Peachum, who justifies anything in the name of commerce, with enthusiasm and bite.
Amanda Billing's singing stands out as she becomes the sucked-in wife of Macheath, fights her pregnant rival to keep him, and turns herself into a businesswoman worthy of her dreadful father. Her wedding night song Pirate Jenny, a revenge fantasy song, brought chills down the spine. This song too should be wider known in the famous song repertoire.
Roy Snow is Macheath, dressed in what looked like a 1980s businessman's suit … he plays a charming, slippery man. In the wedding scene, he is quite the menace one expects an evil man to be but this recedes in later scenes.
Cameron Rhodes is corrupt police chief Tiger Brown and adds depth to the character. His army song duet with Macheath is amusing but he was at his singing best on the trapeze at the end of the production. He didn't appear to have a microphone at the time.
The microphones were a problem. While the music, led by Grant Winterburn, was delightfully performed, the singing was at times wrecked by the microphone volume.
There was some superb torch singing but even this at times was damaged by the sound level. The worst of the volume came late in the final anthem when suddenly the words became completely unclear and lost, turning into a roar of sound. This needs to be fixed.
Right at the end, the musical has a dramatic moment that completely alters how you see it. Ironically, this production meets the challenge in the same way that Priscilla did earlier in the week – with flying, singing diva (divo?) against a magnificently choreographed and costumed singing, dancing cast as firework confetti burst over the audience and brightly coloured flags roll down the back wall. It just did it better.