A common preconception of Brecht's work is that
his political views, his 'anti-theatre' style and the didactic tag that
precedes any conversation about it, creates theatre that screams
"worthy" and "intellectual" but offers little enjoyment for
the average theatregoer. So it's refreshing and surprising that Rufus Norris'
latest production of Simon Stephens' adaptation of one of Brecht's best known
and most accessible pieces,
A production that has no major flaws but also has no major successes – done pretty well.
The tale of Captain Macheath AKA 'Mack the Knife' – the murderer, womaniser, blackmailer and all-round philanderer – as he attempts to evade capture and hanging whilst being pursued by the Peachums (the parents of Mack's new 'wife' Polly) and Tiger Brown (the bent cop with whom he shared history and secrets from the war at Kandahar) is a swipe at capitalism, corruption and the power that comes when one plays with both. Rory Kinnear's Mack evokes no threat of fear and lacks power so doesn't display any of the animal magnetism that supposedly draws so many women (and men) to him, so making his proclamation that he isn't a "heartbreaker; arse-breaker maybe" seem more deluded than crude. He is more like Trigger from Only Fools and Horses – fun to watch, laid back but a bit too stupid to be the criminal mastermind we are told he is.
His performance befits the cartoonesque style that those around him also play to – using a particular exaggerated trait to make for easy laughs - such as in Nick Holder's sinisterly camp, cross-dressing Peachum, Haydn Gwynne's drunkenly sluttish Celia Peachum and Matt Cross' post bum-stabbing hobble and (quickly tedious) over-use of the words 'cock' and 'cocking' as Officer Smith. Even the jokes towards and by disabled actor Jamie Beddard's performance as hoodlum Matthias (I only use the disabled moniker because it is very much used for the jokes on stage) are a bit too obvious to either raise a laugh or make a wider comment on anything (ok, it's funny when he calls Mack a cunt for pretending not to understand his speech but only because we can't help but laugh at naughty words!). Students of Brecht may say we aren't meant to care about or believe in any of his characters – if that was Norris' objective, then he has clearly succeeded.
Vicki Mortimer's set design on the challenging Olivier stage uses the revolve well to move us through settings often and with ease and is pure Brechtian – even if it does seem like expensive sparsity. We see all the backstage lights and rigs, props are labelled ('Lepers', 'Big Flag for Scene 7', 'The Pink Envelope') and the actors build and dismantle the wooden sets with a practised choreography. At times there is too much going on for us to maintain focus (at the end of Act One when the murder takes place, the speedily revolving of the set whilst cast run off and on doing their own thing – including a random depiction of two men fucking – is unnecessarily disjointed and distracting) but it generally creates realism within its overtly (and rightly) theatrical structure.
Brecht and Weill's songs are also performed well across the board – from George Ikediashi's Balladeer opening with a voice that is treacly rich, booming and slightly threatening, to Rosalie Craig singing with a purity that suits her bookish Polly Peachum exquisitely. But the use of onstage musicians at times drowns out the lyrics – arguably the most important part of Brecht's characterisations. It all leads to a production that has no major flaws but also has no major successes – done pretty well, offers some laughs and good songs (being Weill though, they aren't tunes to stick in your head for long) and it's interesting to look at, even if you don't always know where you should be looking. It just doesn't excite or have the energy that you would expect a piece by the new-ish Artistic Director of the National Theatre to have. It's a quick burger to satiate a hunger pang rather than the exquisite last meal that Macheath – or we – really desire.