Friday, February 02, 2018

The Threepenny Opera - fresh, audible and entertaining - signs of a great reboot of NI Opera (Lyric until 10 Feb)

Underneath Polly Peachum's clean cut image lies a young woman with a risk-taking streak. She plants her affections on the cheek of bad lad Mack the Knife (or Macheath) who seems to have his wicked way - criminally, sexually, or both - with half of London. Polly's parents decide to intervene and conjure up a plan to take the reprobate off the streets and put him into the hands of the police chief, over whom Mack has more than a little influence. What follows takes in betrayals, liaisons, bribes, escapes, angst, and eventually an unexpected regal intervention to bring about a happy ending.

While the plot sounds like the fare of classic opera, The Threepenny Opera - so named because that's all you needed to be able to afford to see the original show - is nowhere near as exclusive and privileged as the bulk of classic operatic repertoire.

These are working class heroes and villains in London on the eve of Queen Victoria's coronation, telling an earthy story with which the original audience should have had some empathy (particularly any womanising, murderous, gangmaster types). However, there's a modern sensibility to the lyrics, dialogue and Walter Sutcliffe's direction which feels remarkably contemporary in light of shenanigans around The Presidents Club and attitudes towards immigration and poverty. And there's a suitably Brechtian audience challenge to consider whether we can change our ways.

The Threepenny Opera is much closer to musical theatre than pure opera, as evidenced by the cast being mostly filled with talented singing actors who have no previous opera experience. But boy can they sing.

Marc Blitzstein's English adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's original opera is aware that it is being staged in a theatre, and NI Opera's production (coproduced with the Lyric Theatre) adds a few extra nods to the audience to acknowledge the gender-switched roles and the humorous effect that has on some of the lines of dialogue.

Seventeen wide shiny black steps dominate the stage, with the band - definitely a band rather than an orchestra - sitting in the wings resplendent in stripy blazers with boaters perched above their rouged cheeks. A platform provides a break in the stairs near the top, a few steps down from a letterbox shaped opening into an elevated room.

Dorota Karolczak's novel set provides a much greater intimacy for people sitting higher up in the Lyric's banked seats who look straight across at much of the action rather than peering down at the stage. However, particularly for the high-heel wearing members of the cast, the steep staircase must be a lethal nightly workplace that could turn anyone in the cast into a 'bump bump bump' Pooh-bear impersonator with the slightest lapse of concentration.

Jayne Wisener captures the complexity of Polly who at a superficial level believes that Mack can move one from his womanising past and stay faithful to her, while quickly adapting to the quickly obvious reality that even braces will struggle to keep his trousers up around his waist.

Macheath (Mark Dugdale) struts about the stage looking like a James Bond who failed his MI5 entrance exam, ordering about his expendable underlings and never attempting to change the habits of his lifetime. His childish tattoo of himself, along with the fact that his menace and cruelty is verbal rather than physical, never quite made me believe he could be the most notorious criminal in London.

The other women in his life are epitomised by sultry Jenny played by Kerri Quinn who turns on her husky-voice to match her salacious character and Lucy (Brigid Shine), the voluptuous daughter of the commissioner of police and another pretender to the spousal throne of Macheath.

Polly Peachum's parents are an odd couple, perennially dressed in tracksuits. Jonathan is played by Steven Page and runs a network of beggars across the capital. Page's rich baritone voice blends beautifully with that of his wife Celia played by Matthew Cavan (aka Miss Cherrie Ontop) who recently wowed a Sunday night Lyric audience with his rendition of the Ten Plagues song cycle. (Ironically, given that Celia is the brains behind the capture of Macheath, this female power has been put back into the hands of a male performer!)

A nearly unrecognisable Orla Mullan shows versatility switching between characters, while Richard Croxford is uber-creepy as the all-seeing police chief, while Maeve Smyth is his smarter, less corruptible and more efficient sergeant. 

Actors have been allowed to keep their normal accents which turns the UK capital into something closer to London Irish. While the most noticeable, Jayne Wisener's Coleraine twang wasn't the only brogue to sound more upmarket and Anglicised when singing than speaking, but the inconsistencies don't affect the story.

Brash patterns and lots of stripes dominate the costumes designed by Karolczak. Polly's yellow rose-covered wedding dress that gradually broke down into smaller parts is a particular wardrobe triumph. Props add mirth - particular a table and the stable - along with Gerard McCabe's charity animal costume and the appearance of some sheepish nursery rhyme characters.

What made The Threepenny Opera stand out from previous NI Opera works was the clarity of the vocals. Every single word that was sung could be heard above the orchestra. Hallelujah for great live sound mixing. Suddenly there was no guessing what was happening, or relying on a previously read synopsis of the plot.

If you've never been to the opera, this piece is a great place to start. It's opera light. There's no warbling vibrato to obscure the words. But there are flamboyant costumes and characters, fabulous singing and sets, a story that entertains, and a wealth of local talent throwing themselves into the performance. Hopefully a sign of things to come with future NI Opera productions.

The Threepenny Opera continues in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 10 February.

No comments: