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Sydney Theatre Company knows cutting edge, but it’s unlikely they’ve seen an antihero as dangerous as Mack the Knife in Michael Kantor’s new production of The Threepenny Opera, which updates the action to a seedy Australian locale.
It’s an apt transformation, considering Bertolt Brecht adapted John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera — set in dank, Dickensian London — to create an unflinching reflection of Weimar Republic debauchery.
Kantor, who created the production for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in collaboration with Victorian Opera, believes Australia’s convict roots have primed us to cheer on a murderous deviant like Macheath. “Melbourne and Sydney are cities that really revel in and glorify our criminality — we get off on it.
“The sheer mention Smith Street in Melbourne and you’re thinking about the hoodlums and the history of crime written all over that street. Sydney has a similar relationship; just mention the Cross and it’s all in the geography of the place. Underbelly calls upon that and we do as well.”
Although Brecht’s lyrics have been translated from the original German to a bawdy English vernacular, they’re still perfectly suited to Kurt Weill’s biting, jazz-inflected tunes. Kantor worked “hand in glove” with Victorian Opera artistic director Richard Gill to retain the authentic 1920s Berlin feel of the songs, performed live with accompaniment from Ensemble Weill.
“I love Weill’s music to bits,” Gill enthuses. “It’s acerbic, bitter-sweet, cynical and all those wonderful things which music really can’t be, but somehow Weill manages to capture the essence of every song perfectly and convey the text splendidly.”
The eclectic cast — including Eddie Perfect as Macheath, Lucy Maunder (Polly) and velvet-voiced Paul Capsis in drag as the prostitute Jenny — adds a unique dimension to the musical numbers. Kantor sees this diverse bunch of singer-actors as “the cream of Australia’s opera, music theatre and cabaret performers.
“When Weill was casting originally with Brecht they really did go for the best cabaret star and the hot young ingénue director and the great soprano singer from the local opera company. They cast across many forms.”
“Each voice has a special and thrilling quality and a character all of its own,” Gill agrees. “I was looking for individuality, strength, commitment and colour, and this cast has all those qualities in spades.”
Capsis in the role of Jenny is just one of many twists adding lurid colour to the setting. “He plays it not as a transvestite or a female impersonator but rather as a woman, which was a choice he made,” Kantor explains.
“Paul gives a rather delicate but always exciting frisson when he sings. He plays it straight, as one should, but his voice transports a song like Mack the Knife in a way I’ve never heard before.”
As for Eddie Perfect, the lovable blonde everyman— was it difficult to shake up his image and get him to tuck into the meaty role of the villain? Kantor is convinced that “the more charming, the sweeter the smile, the deadlier the blade.
“Eddie is by nature a grand satirist of society, and Macheath is a character designed to shock conventional society. It works perfectly for someone like Eddie who’s always got a twinkle in his eye. He reveled in his dark side and plays it with a lightness that’s really appropriate. He’s the dandy inside Mack, which is why he’s so attractive.”
The production doesn’t just rely on crims, corruption and cabaret for easy kicks; it strives to get to the heart of Brecht and Weill’s “grand stab at humanity” and the social issues they explore. “I think it’s so of its time and we’re seeing yet again the consequences of a consumerist society built on those who have and those who don’t have. A late-Capitalist collapse seems like it’s swirling around us with more apocalyptic tones.
“This piece is all about that and was written at a time when the stock market was completely out of control and Berlin was a tinderbox. It was written and set in London in the gangs of London… Well, look at the gangs of London today!”