The Threepenny Opera | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft – Grant Smith and Amanda Muggleton. Cover – Lucy Maunder and Eddie Perfect. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti

The Sydney Theatre Company’s presentation of last year’s Victorian Opera/Malthouse Theatre co-production is an absolute delight, one which really does grab you and refuse to let go until the final note has rung out, leaving you feeling spent, excited, and perhaps a little soiled. But in a good way.

For anyone unfamiliar with Brecht and Weil’s classic musical (or indeed The Beggar’s Opera, upon which it in turn is based), then a dose of the latest series of TV’s Underbelly set in the 1920s is probably the best equivalent when it comes to the sort of energetically depraved milieu of mobsters, hookers, bent cops and psychos that are on offer here. When your main character Mac the Knife is a resolutely unapologetic murderer, rapist, bigamist and gangster, you know you’re in for quite the sordid little tale.

While the dramatic impact of this production is undeniable, it is interesting to consider, however, whether the nature of its effect on today’s theatergoing audience is surely rather different to the sensation it caused in Brecht’s time. Both formally and in terms of depicting the lives of the marginalised classes, the corrupt elites, and the criminals who infest all aspects of this world, this is no longer particularly shocking subject matter, although it perhaps remains somewhat more unusual for musical theatre.

That said, however, it is still a decidedly sordid tale wholly lacking any heroism or redemption, in which the evil go unpunished and society in general gets a sound lashing. Particularly given its ambiguous moral stance and ambivalent conclusion, the piece still has a definite sting. The dialogue has been given something of an overhaul by Raimondo Cortese,
injecting a modern degree of appropriately hard-hitting language for this seedy underworld, but also localises the text with sundry references to infamous Sydney suburbs.

While this may seem to jar slightly with the retention of the original references to an impending coronation, the production design conjures such an intensely stylised setting in which the niceties of time and place are rendered somewhat moot. A better question is whether the text’s Marxist attack on the bankers, cops and politicians secure in respectable positions of power being as bad if not worse than the criminal scum who serve as the play’s protagonists has been somewhat dulled, if perhaps not by this production per se
, then by the political apathy of our times. These challenges posed by Brecht are, if anything, more pertinent than ever.

Similarly, some might ponder whether Michael Kantor
’s direction, with its use of elaborate sets and costuming, fully embraces the Brechtian ethos of Epic Theatre. Perhaps not, but strict “alienation technique” is hardly necessary here. There is no mistaking the theatricality of this production, with its stage demarked by a large roped-off square, as though the boundaries of a boxing ring in which the characters do battle. The floating set-pieces are selfconsciously avant garde and the performers are all resplendent in outrageous outfits and demonic greasepaint to imbue each actor a grotesque, caricatured visage. Brecht’s philosophy of theatre has perhaps been integrated, exploded and reconstituted with a vibrant carnivalesque atmosphere and a clear sense of artifice that is equally as far removed from naturalism as any piece of Epic Theatre.

As engaging as the revised translation and eye-catching stagecraft may be, however, it is most certainly the gutsy, larger-than-life performances of its cast that drive this production to the heights it achieves. Lucy Maunder
is well-cast as Polly Peachum, delivering a stunning rendition of The Barbara Song – perhaps the last word on that old truism that “women love a bastard”. Grant Smith and especially Amanda Muggleton push the limits of broad villainy to delightful new lows as Pechum’s scheming parents, while Jolyon James and Luke Joslin are suitably off-the-wall as Tiger Brown and Filch.

However, as excellent as the ensemble is that surrounds him, it is Eddie Perfect
who really takes this show to the next level. Even being familiar with much of his prior stage work in shows like Keating!, or his own projects such as Shane Warne the Musical and Misanthropology, and in fact even having already seen him in this exact production during its original run at the Merlyn Theatre, his performance here is still face-smackingly brilliant. Perfect is indeed true to his name while playing Macheath, from the moment he stalks onstage, scowling in his almost clown-like makeup and outrageous pimp clothing. It is no mean feat either, for Mac must be likeable yet loathsome in equal measure.

No mere scallywag is he, but rather “a sadist, and a rapist”, as Jenny the hooker so memorably wails, one who delights in his violent power over others and always falls prey to his own carnal weakness, yet is irresistible to those who should know better. It is a towering performance that is as vile as it is delicious, intentionally devoid of subtlety yet revealing a disarming depth, Perfect
draws you in, almost inexorably. You may not be cheering Mac on, but you certainly can’t look away for a moment.

If Perfect
provides the solid bricks of the production, it is Paul Capsis who serves as the mortar. The muse of many an envelope-pushing director, Capsis is sensational in his role of the aging prostitute Jenny, acting as Greek Chorus throughout the show and delivering scarifying renditions of the musical’s most famous song, Mac The Knife. Yet for all that makes this a true star turn, Capsis has the good grace not to go overboard with the scene-stealing campness that he so easily could have turned on in the midst this already thoroughly outrageous show. He prefers instead to underplay the role, relatively speaking, and strike less for the character’s potential for humour than to underscore her pathos, and it is a tremendously effective approach.

Michael Kantor
’s production of The Threepenny Opera is a bold, unapologetically nasty piece of bravura musical theatre. With a terrific new adaptation, an eye-popping visual design and genuinely transfixing performances, it is a rollicking night that lifts the lid on the dog-eat-dog nature of a deeply corrupted society, one we can only delude ourselves into thinking is all that truly different to our own.

Sydney Theatre Company and Asteron present a Malthouse Melbourne and Victorian Opera production
Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill’s
The Threepenny Opera
text by Raimondo Cortese | lyrics by Jeremy Sams

Director Michael Kantor

Venue: Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 3 – 24 September, 2011
Tickets: $40 – $130
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 |

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