No Honour Among Thieves

Issue section: 
(271)

Review of 'The Threepenny Opera' by Bertolt Brecht, National Theatre, London, and touring

This production brilliantly brings to life one of Bertolt Brecht's earliest plays. 'The Threepenny Opera' was first written by Brecht, with music by Kurt Weill, in 1928 in Berlin.

Brecht adapted the opera from John Gay's 'Beggar's Opera'. The play centres on the dastardly deeds of top pimp and criminal Macheath and his gang, and his close relationship with his old friend from his army days, Brown, the corrupt High Sheriff of London. The play explores how the two need each other to survive. Another important character is Mr Peachum (father of Polly Peachum who marries Macheath), who runs a criminal outfit by dressing up various poor people as beggars. He carefully selects the costume which will get the most sympathy from the public. He is a cynic who depends upon poverty and the idea that charity is a solution to these huge problems.

Macheath, Brown and Peachum are not pleasant characters, and it is difficult to feel sympathy for them. We are forced to look at what has created these people--poverty. The play does not give us a clear solution but it poses the question very well.

The play develops real tension when Peachum is unhappy with Polly marrying Macheath. Peachum wants Polly to run his business, not his arch-enemy's. Peachum decides that there is no honour among thieves and turns to Inspector Brown to deal with Macheath. He is able to blackmail Brown, but will Macheath get caught or will he get away yet again?

The National Theatre Education Department uses this production to show that Brecht is not stuffy or overly serious. The show begins with the actors reciting some of the odd responses from a survey of the audience as they came in. The actors then get different sections of the audience to shout out key lines from the play such as, 'Get up and steal from your neighbour'. This is more like a warm-up for a comedy club, and it helps to break down the barrier between actors and audience. All the music in the production is performed by the actors, blurring the distinction between actor and musician.

The script and songs have been cleverly updated by Anthony Meech and Jeremy Sams to make it more contemporary. 'The Cannon Song' is turned into a brilliant attack on the British army. This production is touring Britain and returns to the National Theatre in London.