Magazine article The Spectator

Shocked by Brecht

Magazine article The Spectator

Shocked by Brecht

Article excerpt

The Threepenny Opera


Les Miserables


One of the surprising things about being a theatre critic is how many of the socalled masterpieces of the stage turn out to be damp squibs. Tartuffe, for instance, is about as sophisticated as Carry On Dick, while The Alchemist is like a particularly bad episode of Blackadder. However, nothing had prepared me for the shock of seeing the National Youth Theatre's production of The Threepenny Opera last week. If Bertolt Brecht really was the Soviet bloc's most gifted propagandist it's little wonder that the communists lost the Cold War.

The Threepenny Opera is so bad it's difficult to know where to begin. The story is a poor knock-off of Scarface. The characters are crude stereotypes. The plot makes no sense. It reminded me of a musical I was in at Highgate Primary School that was written by one of the teachers. As for The Threepenny Opera's political content, the anti-capitalist 'message' is delivered with such heavy-handed didacticism I felt like whipping out my mobile on the spot and ordering a stockbroker to buy 100 shares in IBM.

To be fair to Brecht, the National Youth Theatre may bear some of the responsibility for this fiasco. This is an 'updated' version of the play, set in England in the present day. Macheath, the villain of the piece, is clearly intended to be a diabolical version of David Beckham, complete with white suit and designer stubble. (Oooh, subversive!) The dialogue sounds as if it's being made up by the actors as they go along - and for all I know it is. As far as I can tell from the programme notes, this production is based on the one performed at the Donmar Warehouse in 1994 that Jeremy Sams adapted from Robert David MacDonald's translation, but only in the loosest possible sense. It's full of sanitised street slang - terms like `mother-licking' - as though a trendy vicar has attempted to update The Threepenny Opera so it's 'relevant' to `the kids'. It should be called The Five Pee Opera.

The cast is uniformly dismal. It's hard to believe that this is the cream of Britain's young acting talent. The central performers lack even the most rudimentary skills, such as the ability to control the loudness of their voices. It's as if a mischievous tenyear-old is sitting in the audience with a remote control in his hand, constantly adjusting the volume. The really surprising thing is how unattractive they all are. As a critic, I've come to expect actors to be either ugly or talentless but not both. It's as though an extreme form of reverse discrimination is at work in which the people selected to perform were those who scored the lowest in every relevant category in the auditions. …

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