John Kelly’s Narrator introduces The Threepenny Opera by barking obscenities at the audience from before a tattered red curtain while mocking his fellow company members. Buzzing around the stage in his electric wheelchair, Kelly’s voluble and volatile presence whips up a level of energy which this Graeae co-production manages to maintain for almost three hours, during which time the company unleash a charged, hysterical, non-stop onslaught of political commentary combined with riotous entertainment.
In a London preparing for the coronation of Charles III, the upwardly mobile but brutish Macheath marries the idealistic but hardy Polly; her parents then plot to have Macheath murdered. The familiar story has been charged with contemporary resonance, with songs that take swipes at the crimes and hypocrisy of Jimmy Saville and David Cameron, while a dwarf tap dances and a live brass band shimmies around the stage. Projections caption the performance and throw everything from hentai porn to Benefits Street into the visual mix, adding another layer to a chaotic collage of music, polemic, laughter, sex, anger and play.
Far from being disability-blind, the production repeatedly draws attention to the bodies of its actors – the wheelchair-bound Peachum jokes that someone would steal his legs from under him, and he screams at his wife (the blind Victoria Oruwari) about her failure to see what’s going on in front of her. The play itself, of course, holds up ‘real’ disability as less effective than the performed disabilities demanded by Peachum of his company of beggars. Disability, along with homelessness and other disenfranchised states, are here a construction of a disinterested state. The sheer ludicrousness of Charles’s final reprieve of Macheath, along with the gift of Kensington Palace, make the point plainly; harder hitting is Milton Lopes’s rendition of Macheath’s ‘Call from the Grave’, his fine voice breaking into unbridled hatred against the hypocrisy of a society that has abandoned him.
Despite the production’s length, the pacing is tremendous. Kelly whizzes about, screaming for scene changes, and the large ensemble all share musical, singing and acting duties. A slapstick wedding is thrown into disarray by Macheath and Tiger Brown’s violent reminiscing about their army days; a seductive dance between Jenny Diver and Macheath is interrupted by police officers joining the prostitutes as partners; and, in a beautiful display of passive aggression, CiCi Howells’s Polly and Natasha Lewis’s Lucy share miniature cakes and steely asides as they attempt to find their husband. With everyone out for themselves, the sense of discontent is palpable: Life’s a bitch and then you die.
From a strong ensemble, the standout performance is that of Sign Language Interpreter Jude Mahon. Working as Kelly’s sidekick (‘I can’t do this without you signing next to me, I get lonely’), Mahon shifts seamlessly between BSL, SSE and what can best be described as interpretive dance, aligning herself with different characters as the plot dictates. Her most moving scenes were those with Polly, particularly during the ‘Barbara Song’ as Mahon mimes the removal of her knickers and her refusal of former lovers as Polly narrates, before the two finally align for the final verse, signing and singing their encounter with Macheath together. Mahon’s omnipresence becomes the production’s heart, offering silent yet biting commentary on the main action; in making plural the physical expression of the play’s themes and ideas, she also serves the important role of continually reminding the audience this is not just a production about the characters onstage, but also about the issues faced by the communities on whose behalf the company is speaking.
If there was one slightly odd note struck, it came in the closing moments of the production as the final song made a compassionate plea specifically on behalf of the homeless. Laudable as these sentiments are, they sound strange after the company’s anarchic and timely pot shots at everything from sleazy politicians to celebrity paedophiles, the monarchy to police corruption, disability discrimination to bankers. This production seemed throughout to be highlighting a more widespread and bitter sense of total disenfranchisement; the real strength of the piece is in its volatility, its anger and its tremendous energy.