The Threepenny Opera in Nottingham, Ipswich, Birmingham and Leeds: 24 February

The Threepenny Opera has just begun a run at Nottingham Playhouse, before travelling to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Brecht and Weil’s famous musical is performed by Graeae, a lively company ‘boldly placing deaf and disabled artists centre stage.’ I went on Saturday with friends.

The Threepenny Opera, from Berlin 1928, is a relentless gruesome tale of an unlovable criminal who is ridiculously reprieved in the end. It mocks and challenges notions of the deserving poor and the worthy Establishment, also of Christian charity, ethics and salvation. It is ‘in your face’ and preachy, especially at the end. The music is occasionally likeable but blunt and repetitive. The ‘Opera’ celebrates a culture of violence, and violent leaders. Although Brecht and Weil, writer and composer, had a very left wing stance, the play gives a somewhat chilling indication of a society that could welcome Hitler. Quite how it can be deemed so wonderful is a mystery.

The cast played with energy and enthusiasm. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, which helped the audience to enjoy the show as much as we could. The female singer-actors were all good, especially Victoria Oruwari playing Mrs Peachum. It would be good to hear her in concert. The supporting actors were impressive, with accuracy and verve. Unfortunately Milton Lopes as the main villain / hero Macheath was miscast. His laconic delivery of lines was flat and formulaic compared to the other cast and his singing voice weak. Overall, the company kept the audience interested and engaged, but, for me, they were struggling against a simply nasty script.

The Threepenny Opera has been described as the crowning symbol of the Weimar Republic, the Germany between the First World War and the Nazi dictatorship. Here we have leading, celebrated, intellectuals mocking ordinary people’s sense of hard work, reward, fair play, marital faithfulness and community care. There is no appreciation of the human values, just an assault against all that these self-appointed preachers, Brecht and Weil, deem ‘bourgeois.’ There is no vision of a better world, just an adolescent denigration of status quo. There is no sympathy or support for democracy, for diversity and fair play, just a glorification of people who win fights in an urban jungle and long to ‘shoot the lot of them.’ No wonder that many ordinary people were affronted and felt they needed protection from this left wing intellectualism. No wonder that democracy had no champions, even on the left wing. The winner in the real German urban jungle, the man with more brownshirted bullies at his disposal than anyone else, Adolf Hitler, was indeed ready and able to ‘shoot the lot of them’, beginning with left-wingers like Brecht and Weil who had to flee Germany. But he was only proving better at the game they had celebrated and promoted.

We in England cannot crow. The Threepenny Opera is set in London, and is an adaptation of ‘The Beggars Opera’ by John Gay of 1728. Brecht and Weil thought that Germany and England had much in common. They were reacting against the Imperialism that dominated both countries, the selfish misuse of power and position by the haves against the have-nots. They failed to understand that the teaching and life of Jesus was essentially anti-imperialist, a force for everyone, non-violently tearing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. They wanted to throw out the life-giving baby with the bathwater of imperialism. It was not only Germans who had a ‘shoot the lot of them’ attitude. The British Empire, underneath its veneer of Christendom, was sustained by the use of machine guns against people with spears. Thank God we live in different times, aware of the dangers of repeating the mistakes of history.

Comments welcome, especially from theatre-goers in Nottingham, Ipswich, Birmingham and Leeds.

Roger Harper

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