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The Threepenny Opera – Edinburgh International Festival

Is The Threepenny Opera really an opera or is it more in the realm of musical theatre? The Edinburgh International Festival itself classifies it as ‘music theatre’ – it does have a separate ‘opera’ category, and it has a list of musical numbers, rather than arias, recitatives, choruses and so on. But then perhaps The Threepenny Musical doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, and I found myself thinking of the actors more as singers than as characters.

Threepenny Opera, Edinburgh International Festival, -® Berliner Ensemble.
Threepenny Opera, Edinburgh International Festival, -® Berliner Ensemble.

There isn’t a lot of scenery in this production, which isn’t the same as a lack of set: Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre stage had what I can only describe as scaffolding, which somehow proved sufficient for almost every scene, with a shiny curtain sparingly in use otherwise. Several breaches of the fourth wall help to maintain interest in proceedings. One man in the audience (I have no idea if he was a stooge or not) even found himself singing a couple of lines from a completely different show (having apparently been given free rein to sing whatever he wished).

Rather like Italian opera sounding best when it is actually sung in Italian, I can’t imagine this German work sounding better in anything other than its original language. Despite my schoolboy German being far from adequate to decipher an opera without the provided supertitles in English, my attention was repeatedly drawn to the stage action itself rather than the words above it, and I’m sure I technically missed a few lines in translation as a result. But it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was going on.

Adam Benzwi conducts a small orchestra, and Holger Schwark’s sound design does well to balance the strong voices of the Berliner Ensemble with the sounds of the musicians, who are also often included in the narrative, albeit in non-speaking roles. That they were acknowledged mid-performance gave the show a slight concert feel, as did Cynthia Micas’ Polly Peachum, who might well have passed off as a contender for Germany’s Got Talent, if indeed they have such a thing over there. Her interactions with love rival Lucy (Amelie Willberg) are convincing as much as they are amusing.

Gabriel Schneider’s Macheath had a very good stage presence. Tiger Brown, played by Kathrin Wehlisch: the chief of police is, in this production, a crossdresser. This Macheath displays considerable physical agility, making it easy to see why, aside from being childhood friends with Brown, he escapes being brought to justice for so long. The final scenes, far from tragic, are very amusing – Macheath, sentenced to hang, is asked what he would like for his last meal. Asparagus is eventually duly served, once a squeaky trolley is (very, very) slowly wheeled over to him. A royal pardon, and much more besides, not only reprieves the notorious criminal but showers blessings on him.

There are elements of anti-capitalist thinking but this production focuses more on Macheath’s craving for admiration – a huge sign reading “LOVE ME” says it all. Virtue signalling and hypocrisy have their contemporary equivalents, of course, and this is a lively and vigorous show that breathes new life into Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s classic and enduringly popular work.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The Berliner Ensemble takes on Brecht’s biting satire for the UK premiere of this critically acclaimed production directed by Barrie Kosky.

Fri 18 – Sun 20 Aug

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2 thoughts on “The Threepenny Opera – Edinburgh International Festival”

  1. As a Germanophile, I was thoroughly looking forward to The Berliner Ensemble’s production of the Threepenny Opera at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. It turned out to be my least favourite show in many years.

    In brief – I’ll at least try but the list in long – there was little to enable the audience to connect with the characters. A distinctive lack of physical contact between the performers and they crawled over the staging. The steel structure staging was dramatic, but it took 40 mins for the dreadful tinsel stage curtain to lift and reveal it. During which time the performers, rather than endearing us to their story had failed to capitalise on their captive audience (operating in only 3m at the front of the stage for 40 mins), leaving us wondering if we could make it to the interval.

    With the tinsel fog removed we saw the black steel frame revealed (but backed by yet more tinsel… I’m sorry, was there a subliminal message I missed? Please tell me if there was).

    Wonderful, this remaining tinsel lifts, things can only get better … or … not … we are subjected to another 20 minutes before lightning arrives to the performance with wonderful backlit silhouettes and contrasts as yet unseen… 1hr in. This shouldn’t of itself be an issue, except we’re still waiting for performers and audience to connect, on any level.

    It’s clear each performer can sing and Cynthia Micas has a fine and powerful voice. However, united with her fellow actors, and perhaps this was the point, the sounds were messy and disjointed. Thank goodness for the band keeping the whole thing going. No really, I tuned in to the band many times to find a focus to keep me going.

    The stage moved at about 1hr 45m and then again for the next 15 mins or so. Thank goodness – Europe’s largest opera stage finally bumbling to life.

    I could go on, but what’s the point. The last thing… wardrobe… what on earth was the fabric chosen for Mac’s trousers? Grim, grim, grim. Then, the fabrics and colours for the rest of the staff. As if they didn’t have enough to deal with the staging.

    A redeeming afterthought… this was less grim than Brexit and if this is the only way foreigners are allowed into Britain these days, via art performances, I’d endure this performance again just to be supportive. But given the world championship cycling visa disgrace, that’s by no means solid ground.

    2/5 stars.

    1. Agree with the star rating! We left at the interval, as the show just seemed to disjointed and a far cry from previous Festival standards. The whole production was just so disjointed and attempts to engage with the audience / orchestra just didn’t work. I had problems deciding whether to read the surtitles or follow the show. I was really disappointed with the whole production and have decided to stick to Fringe circuses for entertainment. Pity as I had been so looking forward to this show.

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