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The Threepenny Opera

Tuesday 12th February / posted by Adam Trainer

The work of legendary theatre director Robert Wilson returns to Perth for the first time in 13 years with Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, running from 8 – 11 February in His Majesty’s Theatre as part of Perth Festival 2013.

The story is a familiar one: lovers Polly Peachum and Captain Macheath (better known as the infamous crime lord ‘Mac the Knife’) are married in secret. When Polly tells her disapproving parents of her marriage they aim to bring about its abrupt end by having Mac executed for his crimes. Mac, comforted by his connections in high places, is not concerned until the very last when he is betrayed by his ex-lover Jenny.

Here, Romeo and Juliet meet Jesus and Judas in a late-night cabaret bar filled with fluorescent lights and black sequins.

I recall that Wilson’s production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play for the 2000 Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) was meant to be one of three Wilson productions programmed by Festival Director Seán Doran. These productions were conspicuously absent from the next two festivals, but that was no surprise to anyone who had seen Dream and observed that half the audience had disappeared during the interval. Although Threepenny is arguably more accessible than Dream had been, I am happy to report that the capacity audience on Sunday night was almost completely intact to applaud for at least five minutes of curtain calls.

It is a gift for Perth audiences to be able to experience a production with a cast of this size and calibre, a rare treat that is likely only to occur during the Festival. With the Berliner Ensemble – a company established by Brecht in 1949 – Wilson’s demands for meticulous precision can be met. Every look, every gesture, every step is conducted with control and exactness.

Though ‘opera’ is in its title, Threepenny is more like musical theatre: the performers’ incredible voices do not break with character, permitting nuances like breathiness and screechiness amongst controlled and crystalline delivery. Johanna Griebel captured this perfectly as Polly, teetering between sweetness and fierceness in ‘Pirate Jenny.’

The music is strongly connected to what occurs on stage, providing live sound effects including specific sounds for some characters. The orchestra are the final essential element that creates this tawdry, hedonistic world, locating the characters firmly in the late night cabaret bar filled with discordant harmoniums and sardonic saxophones.

The play is long, but feels even longer due to a series of false endings that occur when the curtains are closed for a scene change. There is also the difficult challenge of trying to keep up with the subtitles which could at times be too quick to make meaning, and at others were frustratingly behind the action, creating a disconnection between action and story. Although very Brechtian, this disconnection meant I came away feeling as though I missed a good portion of what occurred on stage. Not to mention that the patterns made by fluorescent light bars that constituted much of the set design did not seem to consider the sight lines of those sitting up in the gods.

When I returned from interval a few seats had been abandoned, but I like to think it was due to the discomforts of subtitles and sight lines. It appears to me that the past 13 years of inspiring avant-garde contemporary theatre, often brought to Perth audiences by the Festival, has given us greater appreciation for the work of such a significant contemporary theatre luminary.

Michelle Trainer

All live musical performances are included in our podcasts with the express permission of artists, who reserve all other rights in their music. All music used in our podcasts is licensed under an APRA Community Broadcasting license agreement.

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