“Food first, morals later” declares Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum in the shattering second act finale of Bertolt Brecht’s musical play, a satire of bourgeois ethics. Brecht shows us the would-be bosses grubbing and grasping for every penny in order to rise out of the poverty of the mass.
The story, told with the help of a swirling polyphonic score from Kurt Weill, was the first great example of a new genre, musical theatre. Written in 1928, it is based on The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay’s 1728 parody of Handel’s operas, and it was Brecht and Weill’s first big success.
Set in London, the prime capitalist city, the story is of the clash between Peachum, a respectable businessman whose business just happens to be selling licences to beggars, and McHeath, the owner of a chain of stores but in reality the boss of a gang of thieves.
McHeath is in cahoots with the police chief Tiger Brown with whom he spent time in the army. So the businessmen are crooks and the crooks businessmen, with the forces of law and order paid off and ready to do business.
This National Theatre production by artistic director Rufus Norris comes with a new adaptation by Simon Stephens which isn’t quite as punchy as earlier translations. However the hedonism and the cynical egotism of the characters are played in full.
Their language is forthright and robust, not to say downright filthy at times! The show is a whirly jazzy delight that plunges into the mock Dickensian underworld with gusto. It is refreshing to see a production of Brecht in England that revels in his roughness.
Any criticisms we may have are swept away in the sheer power and exuberance of the production which enables it to challenge the audience.
The well-known opening number “Mack the Knife” lulls the audience into a false sense that they know where this is going — it’s musical theatre! By the interval you can feel that confidence draining away from the largely middle class crowd as Brecht’s contradictory and amoral characters rage across the stage in their glorious depravity.
Director Norris plays with us too. One minute we are enjoying Rory Kinnear’s antics as McHeath, the next he is indulging in brutal acts of sexual oppression.
The music is played by a seven piece band plus the musical director who are on stage the entire time, as in the play’s original production. It is the combination of Weill’s music and Brecht’s characters and lyrics that animates the piece and makes it unforgettable.
The songs interrupt the action as a device to draw attention to the motivations behind the action. The music is itself satirical: sentimental when bitter words are being spoken and harsh and impersonal when love is being expressed, questioning the authenticity of feelings and actions.
The female characters are especially strong. McHeath’s true nemesis, Mrs Peachum, is played by the impressive Haydn Gwynne. Polly Peachum, who by getting “married” to McHeath causes the feud to ignite, Lucy Brown, who McHeath is also “married” to, and the
prostitute Jenny are all great roles.
The ensemble cast is refreshingly diverse, including disabled and non-white actors.
The Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin said of his friend Brecht, “He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.” This production continues to do that. It is challenging, thought-provoking but above all fabulously entertaining.
Brecht remarked that the original production started to get some working class people into the theatre. You should beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket.