The always-vexing question of the ‘right’ way to do a playtext is particularly vexed when it comes to Brecht; to stage Brecht is almost invariably to fail Brecht.
While Brecht’s influence on modern theatre cannot be overstated, mainly through his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, theorist Brecht coexists with Brecht the dramatist and Brecht the theatre-maker, and those among us who assume that the three are always in agreement imbue Bertolt with a Godlike infallibility, and his words with biblical weight. The reality is more complicated. Brecht’s works did not always achieve his theatrical goals, his plays have worked against his intentions, and while much of the program he set for the new theatre (disrupting the illusion, mobilising the audience’s morality, the use of technology, truncation of catharsis, etc) has been the key force propelling 20th-century dramaturgy, he has not always been the one to find the answers to the questions he has posed. Moreover, the effect and effectiveness of Brecht’s theatre has changed with time: his influence has been so thorough that few of his formal inventions have the same freshness today, and the political milieu of 2010 is thoroughly different from what it was before the World War II.
Finally, Brecht the technician and dramaturg has always been undermined by Brecht the epigrammatist. The strength of Brecht’s writing is in his one- and two-liners: ‘what is robbing a bank, compared to founding a bank?’, ‘Would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?’, ‘unfortunate is the land that needs heroes.’ There is no opportunity for a good aphorism that Brecht would not use – his epic theatre, in a sense, is an epigrammatic theatre, intended to kick us about with little paradoxes – even when the totality of the work around the two-liner doesn’t hold too well as a result. This is the problem with his musical works: how could a man like that not enjoy a form that is terminally fragmented between songs and prose, a form in which every fifteen minutes one gets to put an accent on the last verse?
The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s first blockbuster, a huge hit despite the shambolic way in which it was made – or perhaps precisely because of it. It is Brecht at his least cohesive: a plot taken from John Gay’s 1727 opera, a plot only loosely translated into Victorian London slash Weimar Berlin, with characters launching into songs often completely disconnected from their theatrical situation. It was shaped significantly by the strong creative input from everyone involved in the first production, and John Fuegi (perhaps exaggeratedly) credits Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lover at the time, with good 80-90% of the text (for which she received a pittance, as is often the case with career-minded men). The day before it opened, the whole crew proclaimed a looming disaster. Instead, it became an overnight success. Brecht himself couldn’t quite admit that the bourgeoisie was enjoying his scathing, subversive critique of their moral universe. But the bourgeoisie hummed the catchy tunes, loved the dark humour: the epigrammatist won by a mile.
This is why it’s difficult to talk about a success or a failure of a production of The Threepenny Opera. Who decides? Can we judge it by the amount of alienation and political commitment it shows? Brecht had read Marx by the time it opened, in 1928, but it would be another full two years before he first tries to sketch the principles of ‘epic theatre’. We cannot really demand from the works of a young man to demonstrate the thinking of the old, not even with theatre’s peculiar understanding of temporality (which is to say, a play is always atemporal to a degree, as it exists now as well as then). How can we judge it by the extent to which it fulfils a program it probably never fulfilled?
Michael Kantor’s production, currently playing at the Malthouse to sold-out houses, has all the usual flaws and merits of a Kantor production. It is no different in style and execution to his many other productions, and this may be its one salient failure: it doesn’t demonstrate an attempt to grapple with the peculiarity of the material as much as give us more of Kantor’s usual concoction of elements. From Peter Corrigan’s mannerist set to the uneven cast (which includes cabaret performers and trained singers of diverse skills), it is an impressionistic rendering rather than a smooth dramaturgical machine. It is gratuitously camp; it is soft on piercing critique and hard on vague gesture.
Kurt Weill’s score is delivered intact by Victorian Opera, generously, for Weill’s music is still bliss to the ears. Anna O’Bryne as Polly Peachum is a revelation, a gorgeous singer and a fierce actress, giving a raw, rude sanguinity to an often neglected role, while Paul Capsis’s majestic Jenny steals every scene (including many in which Jenny doesn’t appear). Eddie Perfect, on the other hand, grows croaky towards the end, and plays a Macheath with vile temper, rather forgetting any sense of fun – but then, it is fair to assume that Perfect was not cast for his vocal abilities. The greatest failure is, without a doubt, the set and the costumes (and I confess to feeling alarmed by this statement: what does it mean when so much of the production hinges on the way the stage is dressed?). There is no point in discussing the way Raimondo Cortese’s precise translation, which re-sets the play into contemporary Melbourne, clashes with the outrageous, no-era costuming, or how the faux-constructivist panel sits meaninglessly behind a set designed, awkwardly, unnecessarily, distractingly, as a boxing ring (demanding the rope pulled down for certain fourth-wall-breaking songs, but not for others). I did not detect any intention for making a coherent statement, against which incoherency could be judged a failure. The rare moments in which the production pulls together (such as the grand repeat of Mack the Knife before the interval, and Mack’s icily cynical pre-hanging speech) do not so much underline the confusion of the rest, as simply look out of place.
In this city, we have spent too much time lately discussing the finer points of camp, and the departing AD of the Malthouse is largely responsible. We have discussed its moral backbone, its stylistic variations, its humour, its targets. Enough. Can the Threepenny be campified? Demonstrably, it can. Does it improve? No, but neither is it particularly harmed. If you take Lotte Lenya’s words seriously, that it is the “subtleness behind the obviousness that gives strength to The Threepenny Opera”, then it ought to be admitted that there is not a lot of subtlety in this particular production, not in, above, or behind it. Perhaps a stronger directorial hand would have wrestled some poignancy into this wild, unruly text. Perhaps we would have seen through our modern-day bourgeois morality. These aren’t the right questions to ask. What we have, instead, is a somewhat perverse celebration of the criminal underworld, with singing and lavish dresses. That cutting, mean Berliner humour has been blown up into something a little farcical, a little broad. Does it matter? Only if you have serious expectations from yet another Kantor camp operetta. And only if you are serious about this whole business of staging Brecht ‘right’.
On the other hand, the production has sparked some soul-searching on the part of the GP (which is how those who go to the theatre lovingly refer to those who don’t). As non-GP, I am both surprised, puzzled and pleased. Perhaps this is exactly the theatre we need. Or deserve. I suspect Brecht would see the humour.
The Threepenny Opera. By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Text: Raimondo Cortese. Lyrics: Jeremy Sams. Director: Michael Kantor. Conductor: Richard Gill. With: Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judi Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O’byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith, John Xintavelonis. Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre, May 28 – June 19. The season has officially sold out, but more tickets may become available closer to each performance. Check the Malthouse website for updates.