Exciting, dark, political and funny, The National Theatre’s latest production of Brecht’s Three’penny classic sports a diverse cast of actors including the earthy, comic presence of Jamie Beddard, long-loved veteran of the disability arts movement. Review by Colin Hambrook
The Threepenny Opera is one of those pieces of theatre that will always be revived as long as the life and death battle for equality continues. The casting of diverse actors feels unselfconscious – just right – within this lavish gothic-horror interpretation that seeks above all to entertain.
Inhabited by a dark and sinister world of pimps, prostitutes and gangsters the play demands total commitment and bravado edged with menace and passion from its cast. Rory Kinnear’s Captain Macheath – a man who has learnt a deep cynicism and contempt for life from his days as a soldier – delivers a knife-edge performance as sinister as he is charming.
Director Rufus Norris and playwright Simon Stephens have set the play in a gloriously fetid version of the East End as it ready’s itself for the Coronation – filling the huge stage of the Olivier Theatre with a revolving set made of a series of wooden theatrical flats.
Matthias (Jamie Beddard) sets the scene for the opening song Mack the Knife delivered by The Balladeer (George Ikediashi) in a gorgeously operatic bass voice. Dressed in Hermes winged helmet, he has arrived from the Gods to introduce this tale of “a city beyond morality”. The camp, comic-horror delivery persists as the brown paper flat that frames the centre-stage during the first scene is slowly knifed-open to reveal a band of ‘the poor’, paraded like characters from a Punch and Judy show.
Peachum (Nick Holder) – a Dickensian cross-dressing master of manipulation and skullduggery – takes centre stage to instructs his band of down and outs with an all-too-real speech reflecting the impact of austerity measures on the community of disabled people today. His instruction on how to beg, could just as easily apply to advice on how to ensure you receive an award of State benefits since IDS’s eradication of Disability Living Allowance: “nobody believes in your own misery. You’ve got to fake it for it to seem real.”
Overall this roller coaster of a show is delivered with all the gusto it needs to make it believable; a brilliant technical skill to make the songs ring and to chill your spine. Kurt Weill’s wonderful atonal score is played out by a rousting eight-piece band who blast their way through, accompanied by the immaculate voices of the cast. There is a wonderful moment when Sarah Amankwah as Lucy Brown and Rebecca Brewer as Polly Peachum play for broke over their love for Mack, competing by seeing who can reach the highest sonorous note.
I believe that aside from Nabil Shaban, Beddard is the only other wheelchair-using actor to tread the boards of the National Theatre in a pivotal role. As one of the gangster’s henchmen Mathias is the perfect foil to Mack the Knife’s relentless scheming egotism; and as the comic fool his character uses his physicality and drawn-out delivery with precision timing, pulling a comedic moment out of the hat whenever the script demands.
Some careful direction has gone into making Beddard’s character work in context, using clever devices to make his speech accessible, having his lines echoed by other characters to ensure that he is heard. In ‘Bouffon’ fashion Mathias is the epitome of the wise fool destined to tell the truth no-matter how close to the bone Mack the Knife threatens to cut: “When you treat people like dogs, don’t be surprised when they act like dogs.” It’s the climactic moment on which the satire rests.
Laced with Keystone Cops-style fun and frolics to offset the brutality of the piece, The Threepenny Opera coalesces into a show that will hold you on the edge of your seat for the full 2 hour, 40 minutes. I haven’t been as excited by a theatre production as this for a long time.
The Threepenny Opera currently runs at the National Theatre until 31 August with plans to add further performances. Please click on this link for further details. Please see DAO’s listings for dates of assisted performances.