Recycling The Threepenny Opera: Simon Stephens’s New Translation at London’s National Theatre
After Sam Wanamaker’s first English production of Brecht’s popular (anti-)opera at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956 – the year which also saw the Berliner Ensemble’s first visit to the British capital –, followed by a series of other stagings in London over the past decades, The Threepenny Opera is back at the National Theatre in 2016 with a daring new version of Brecht’s classic. The translation was produced by playwright Simon Stephens, who is well-known for plays like Motortown or Pornography, which investigate urgent political issues such as terrorism and global warfare, as well as his stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Along with Mark Ravenhill, David Harrower, and Tanika Gupta, Stephens is one of many contemporary dramatists creatively engaging with Brecht’s plays, which attests to the continued influence of Brechtian Epic Theatre on British theatre practitioners. Stephens’s translation is rough, explicit, and straightforward – recycling, updating, and refreshing Brecht’s original for the cultural and social context of the twenty-first century without forsaking Brecht’s critical edge. It is in this spirit that director Rufus Norris brings Stephens’s text to the stage, producing a vibrant, dynamic spectacle that succeeds both in entertaining the audience and in engaging them critically.
Indeed, politics is not lost in Stephens’s and Norris’s adaptation, despite heavy cuts to the original and despite efforts to make the sequence of events more plausible, for example by allowing the women characters, above all Mrs. Peachum (Haydn Gwynne, who perfectly embodies the reinforced revengeful and lecherous side of Mrs. Peachum), more psychological depth and agency. Even though an explicit reference to the contemporary context is not forced upon the production, resonance with current political and social conditions remains strong throughout. Watching the play on 23 June 2016, the day after the UK’s EU referendum, The Threepenny Opera’s take on politics, corruption and economic misery represented a timely intervention. This effect is particularly underscored by Stephens’s and Norris’s choice to consciously set the play in the heart of London, advertised in the prologue as “a City that has gone beyond morality,” by including various direct and critical references to the British capital in the text and on stage that engage the spectators right from the outset – thereby leaving Brecht’s more fictitious and historicized London, which he only knew from books and which served above all as a symbol of Berlin, behind. In this vein, Macheath’s (Rory Kinnear) spontaneous greeting of the London audience, who “could have left, but decided to remain,” after the interval at the first post-referendum show added to the playful seriousness of the whole production.
It is this emphasis on fun and enjoyment – along with politics and criticism – that most characterises this 2016 version of The Threepenny Opera, creating a heightened, irresolvable tension between the “culinary” and the political. Stephens’s translation carves out the vulgarity, sexuality and anarchy inherent in the original and Norris translates this intensified sexual innuendo and playfulness to the stage by using elements of pantomime and comic as well as by introducing strong and luscious women characters, who seem diametrically opposed to the heavily feminised Peachum (Nick Holder, who easily wins over the audience with his charismatic stage presence). While the Balladeer (George Ikediashi) welcomes the audience by ironically stressing that, in this “glorious dirty ditch of a theatre,” “there will be no moralising,” it is precisely the tension between the appeal to enjoy the “a-moral” performance, this seeming lack of “moralising” on the one hand and the clearly implied political impetus on the other which draws the audience’s attention to the politics of the play. It is, in truly Brechtian spirit, a socially critical laughter and fun that results from this clash between pleasure, entertainment and politics.
The stage design plays perhaps the most important role in embodying this clash and in conveying the political essence of Stephens’s and Norris’s opera for the twenty-first century. Consisting of a range of wooden stage flats covered with thin paper, Vicki Mortimer’s set is characterised both by its transparency and provisionality and its Brechtian-inspired amateur-style that sharply contrasts with the professionalism of the performance at one of Britain’s key theatre institutions. The various cardboard elements are flexibly moved around throughout the show and characters often burst through the walls to mark their entrance, which creates highly playful moments of surprise and interruption. As the play develops, the stage flats, which serve to create an open, arena-like space at the beginning of the play, become gradually intertwined, with the musicians and the actors more and more caught up in the stage set. Therefore, what this design seems to foreground is the impossibility of drawing clear spatial and, by implication, social distinctions: in the case of The Threepenny Opera between the allegedly moral, correct bourgeoisie and the a-moral, corrupt beggary. Indeed, it reveals to what degree these supposedly distinct realms are enmeshed with each other – as Brecht has it, the bourgeois is a robber, and vice versa.
Hence, Stephens’s and Norris’s production does indeed successfully take on Brecht’s “suggestions,” as Brecht himself wished for his legacy – while also self-reflexively foregrounding the urgent question of their usefulness and relevance for the contemporary context. By emphasizing the ambiguous distinctions between fun and politics, between play and morality at the heart of The Threepenny Opera, this 2016 version reflects the political relativism, doubt and uncertainty characteristic of our times. It thereby provocatively and productively interrogates not only politics, but also the theatre’s relation to and place within society, and the role Brechtian epic theatre may come to play in the theatrical context of the twenty-first century.
University of Konstanz, Germany