Maidment Theatre
May 30-June 21 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

“MORALITY has no home”, proclaims the tagline of this epic production by Silo Theatre, but in its own twisted way this tale of debauched gangsters and petty hoes has a morality all of its own. Brecht never wrote theatre as spectacle alone. He intended always to challenge the audience, often by inducing a discordance in their viewing, and director Michael Hurst has succeeded admirably in this.

On the subject of spectacle, The Threepenny Opera is one of those seminal theatre pieces that rewards a big, dramatic staging. One has the feeling that this bold and brassy piece is Silo Theatre’s coming of age party. The Maidment Theatre has never looked so glamorous. With a cast of 27, seven musicians, and a production and design team reading like a who’s who of New Zealand theatre, expectations were bound to be high. Add to this all the hype and controversy The Threepenny Opera has attracted since it was first staged 80 years ago and you can see the risk – and potential commercial success.

Back to Brecht, however. Director Michael Hurst – who is no stranger to staging The Threepenny Opera, having done it a number of times in the past – provides us with a production that deliberately sits uneasily between the past and the present. The prostitutes of 1920’s London look eerily similar to those you might see on the corner of K’Rd any night of the week; their potty mouths flick off modern-day parlance which wouldn’t be out of place in those gentleman’s establishments along Fort St. Sometimes, the counterpoint between past and present can be quite distracting. For example, Macheath’s band of cutthroats consume Ripples chips on plastic plates whilst describing how they mugged the Duchess of Somerset. At the risk of sounding like an overenthusiastic drama student, I would suggest that this is classically “Brechtian” – always turning the audience experience back on themselves, never quite allowing the full suspension of disbelief, since the whole point of theatre is to think about what you are seeing.

The actors, too, are in on the game – slyly knowing performances, flicking looks and asides at the audience. Amanda Billing as Polly Peachum is a haughty little miss, someone who has the grit to kick the asses of London’s most hardened criminals but who is still scared of her mother. The emotional tension of her singing, especially in “Pirate Jenny”, was a highlight. Roy Snow provided a somewhat gentlemanly Macheath, and although the comedic interaction with his ‘men’ was delightful, he wasn’t quite sexy enough to convince us that he deserved the attentions of such lusty maidens as Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown (Esther Stephens) and Jenny Diver (Jennifer Ward-Lealand in long-legged, husky voiced splendour). The catfight and duet between Stephens and Billing, on a raised dias resembling a boxing ring, proved the girls had more grit than the boys. Peter Elliot as Peachum and Delia Hannah as Mrs Peachum provided strong anchoring performances, and they were in many ways the most solid characterisations. My favourite though was the ubiquitous and talented Cameron Rhodes as Tiger Brown – his, er, friendly interactions with Macheath throwing new light on their relationship.

Musical director Grant Winterburn and his competent band were very much a part of the action, from their comedic cameos at the start of the show to their costuming and action as seedy music-hall regulars, bantering with prostitutes and beggars. They did considerable justice to the music of Kurt Weill with a raw and energetic interpretation.

Set design (by John Verryt), lighting (by Jeremy Fern) and costume (by Victoria Ingram, with assistance from Bronwyn Bent and Elizabeth Whiting) perfectly complemented the show. Verryt presented a stripped-back Maidment Stage, innards exposed. All the set changes and many of the costume changes were carried out in full view of the audience – some lucky people were even seated on the stage. The overall effect was of being included in a dress rehearsal where actors morphed frequently between being themselves and being their characters, and the show was sometimes not a show, but a musical, satire or rowdy backstage party. Indeed, it was amusing (to my small mind, at least) that some of the audience members, with their short shirt and knee-high boot ensembles, were indistinguishable from the actors playing prostitutes on stage. It could just be that the audience members were being Brechtian, of course.

If this talk is lulling you into a false sense that The Threepenny Opera is a light and amusing story, let me debunk that right now. It’s a dark, harrowing piece which asks some hard questions about violence, treatment of the poor and warns against oversentimentalising reality, and director Hurst doesn’t shirk from these ideas. There is a lot of violence shown, both emotional and physical, and none of Brecht’s characters are at all blameless. The deus ex machina ending – with distinct overtones of Les Mis, anthemic references worthy of a National Party convention and a flying rather than mounted messenger – had me in stitches, and people from the row in front turning around to shush me. It was brilliantly done and sounded the perfect satirical note to round off a satisfying theatrical experience.

Go and see it, it’s well worth it.