Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre, finds himself in an odd position. After a lacklustre first season in which he was pilloried for a quixotic choice of programming, and a couple of big flops (the Damon Albarn-scored wonder.land in particular), there were murmurings that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Therefore, his first big production of 2016, an adaptation by Simon Stephens of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, has a lot riding on it. Can Norris satisfy the critics, keep the NT on the road and deliver something interesting, original and dynamic?
The answers are ‘almost certainly’, ‘presumably’ and ‘mostly’. Thanks to powerhouse performances by Rory Kinnear (a man indelibly associated with the previous Nicholas Hytner regime), Rosalie Craig and a frighteningly/hilariously bizarre Nick Holder, and a look-at-me staging that might occasionally be opaque but seldom bores, this is Brecht with the safety off, in a barking mad production that at least indicates that, if Norris is going to have the artistic directorship wrestled away from him in a few years, he won’t be going quietly.
The story, as reshaped by Stephens, revolves around the amoral Captain Macheath (Stephens), a cynical and murderous former soldier who has established himself as one of London’s most prolific criminals, as well as a whoremaster of some distinction. After a marriage of backdoor convenience to Polly Peachum, he falls foul of her flamboyant but ruthless father (Holder, giving it his all in three piece suits, strange wigs and high heels), who plots an elaborate revenge involving corrupt policemen, his wife and former flame of Macheath’s and a really very unpleasant torture scene in the second act.
It’s all quite spectacular, with enough wit in both the acting and staging to indicate that some of the stranger flourishes are intentional, and the singing is sensationally good, especially Craig; anyone who saw her in the Tori Amos musical The Light Princess will know what a spectacular voice she has, and there are a couple of moments – especially in her performance of the classic ‘Pirate Jenny’ – where she really goes for it and one begins to wonder whether a career on Broadway beckons. But everyone is extremely good, and Kinnear, of course, anchors the evening. He’s a surprisingly shadowy presence in the first half, but by the time that he takes centre stage, he proves every bit as charismatic and horribly compelling as he was as Iago a few years ago, to say nothing of his peerless Hamlet and Sir Fopling Flutter before that. The production and costume design by Vicki Mortimer is endlessly witty, making no concessions to realism, and the songs have the properly greasy feel that Brecht and Weill’s work needs.
So, a bizarre evening, but a good one. What next for Norris? With forthcoming productions hinting at a more Hytner-esque approach – such as Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea and Ralph Fiennes in Antony and Cleopatra – it will be interesting to see whether he ends up fulfilling the difficult commercial and artistic balancing act that most NT directors appear to have ended up tearing their hair out over, or whether he devotes himself to these mad, chaotic fantasies. Either way, I’m looking forward to act two.
The Threepenny Opera at the Olivier Theatre until 1st October 2016. Running time approximately 3 hours including an interval. Production images by Richard Hubert Smith. For more information and tickets visit the website.