The Threepenny Opera – the return of Mack the Knife to the National Theatre

Photo credit: Richard H Smith

With its new production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, the National Theatre has brought a summer blockbuster to the London stage. At its premiere in Berlin in 1928 the play caused a sensation and was celebrated as an innovative work because musical drama in this form had previously not existed. Interestingly, The Threepenny Opera is still regarded as a prototype for the musical; dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill succeeded in uniting high theatrical art with popular entertainment. “The Threepenny Opera is – if nothing else – mainly an attempt to counteract the total dumbing-down of the opera,” Brecht commented on his play which combined radical social criticism with linguistic aggression and mass entertainment.
The production at the National Theatre also deploys this form of presentation – a kind of hybrid of theatre and musical which slickly makes use of traditional staging models rather than breaking away from them. The stage design is minimalistic while ensuring there are plenty of surprise moments with paper walls and barricade-like movable props. The location of London is depicted without reference to a specific time or place – a fictional city which doesn’t have much to do with the present day.
"Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear!"
In this location the ruthless gangster boss Macheath (Rory Kinnear), nicknamed Mackie Messer, pursues his criminal schemes. By marrying Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig) he antagonises his bride’s father, the ‘Beggar King’ Jonathan Peachum (Nick Holder), who fears for his well-run business with those living in poverty. While Peachum and his wife pull out all the stops to get rid of Macheath, their daughter Polly does everything possible to save her husband from her revenge-thirsty parents. The hunt for Macheath commences…
Of course the gangster boss is well-connected enough in the city to get himself out of trouble. Indeed it’s delightful to witness the callousness, slickness and brutality Macheath inventively deploys to deceive his lovers, gangster cronies and other associates... and just as amusing to observe how the underhandedness and malicious behavior of the other protagonists leave Macheath standing.

  • Rory Kinnear plays Macheath. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
  • Rosalie Craig plays Polly Peachum. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
  • Haydn Gwynne (Mrs Peachum) and Nick Holder (Mr Peachum) Photo credit: Richard H Smith
  • The Threepenny Opera in a new production: Jamie Beddard (Matthias) and Rebecca Brewer (Betty) Photo credit: Richard H Smith
  • Rory Kinnear and members of the company Photo credit: Richard H Smith
The Threepenny Opera’s popular songs have the desired effect on the public, whose repeated applause can’t be overlooked. Clearly the on-stage amoral goings-on are still worth watching and listening to. But what does this have to do with us and our times? Is the theatre being used as a platform for political and aesthetic education as Brecht demanded?
Certainly not. Despite Simon Stephens‘ new reworking of the text, this production hovers between musical satire and theatrical slapstick. Rather than causing the laughter to stick in the audience’s throat, the audience enjoys a pleasant night out at the theatre – no more and no less.
"First comes the fodder, then comes morality."
This is probably due to the fact that in our present-day reality the role of the theatre as an institution for moral instruction has become obsolete. On the stage the characters can act in a reckless, egotistical and treacherous way, but as soon as we leave the theatre a short glance at the news headlines affirms that our reality isn’t very much different. The scenes presented to us in an exaggerated form on the stage have long been part of our daily lives: social inequality, corruption, jingoism and the evaluation of humanitarian crises according to economic criteria.
In Brecht’s times the words which he put into the mouths of his characters were heavily laden with cynicism and aggression. Despite the reworking of the language, nowadays its effect is rather tame. The social criticism which in the past caused heated debate has become the norm in our present-day society.
For this reason it follows that we are presented with a production which distinguishes itself through the successful new interpretation of the songs and music, and the infectious enthusiasm with which the entire cast of The Threepenny Opera performs the play. And perhaps this is exactly where the sophistication of the new production lies; we applaud the action on the stage because we see ourselves reflected back, despite the costumes and the abstract stage setting. This is us, this is our world - for us too the fodder comes before the morality.

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