Brecht's The Threepenny Opera swings to New Orleans at the National Theatre, London


Show tune is a vague term. First and foremost, it denotes a song pulled from musical theatre, but that is also unspecified semantic soil when one considers the marked differences between the tallest tress to have sprung from it. West Side Story; Pal Joey; My Fair Lady; Girl Crazy: Carousel: Guys And Dolls. All of the above, with their tales of delinquent street gangs, Cockney girls made good, the cheerful pursuit of the fair sex, and hard mobsters and molls, depict aspects of the grand fresco of human experience in vivid terms. There is a light show tune and there is also a heavy one.

Given the talent of the composers of these works – Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Loesser, to name but some – it is no wonder that jazz musicians splashed their own creative colours on the melodic and harmonic canvases they crafted, and the plethora of productions that dots the 1940s and 1950s heralds the immediate post-war period as a defining era for the show tune as a largely American phenomenon.

However, the recent arrival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre is a timely reminder that that these two genies of German drama also made a not insignificant contribution to the lexicon. First staged in 1928, it is a show not so much with tunes that are light and heavy as a show with a tone that is deliciously dark and sumptuously cynical. Threepenny’s wry comment on immorality, lust, greed and the irrepressible human instinct for survival, by any fiends necessary, makes it a relevant meditation for and on the 21st century. Good as Simon Stephens’ new adaptation is, the centerpiece, certainly from a jazz lover’s perspective, remains the unforgettable theme of ‘Mack The Knife’, which is superbly performed by ‘the balladeer’ George Ikediashi, and reprised in snippets throughout the punchy scenes.

The tale of ‘Macky Messer’, the supreme cutthroat anti-hero of Brecht and Weill’s gloomy 1920s Berlin, with its desperately shredded economy, is transposed to a grimy cyber-Victoriana East End, where Mack aka Macheath’s long blade is liberally wielded to cut short the life of whoever gets in the way of his dodgy dealing in the underworld. But, as the references to blood spilling fly past, it is difficult to wipe away the swagger of Sonny Rollins’ saxophone on his 1956 version – ‘Moritat’ from the immortal Saxophone Colossus – as an additional soundtrack in the sub-conscious.

Jaunty, perky, buoyant, the horn is like a sunbeam skipping on a fresh summer lawn, and all of the brightness and joie de vivre it conveys expertly captures the mood of the original theme, which bounces along as if it is written for a world in which there is no reason to despair. The key words in the lyric – ‘pearly white’, the reference to Mack’s dazzling set of teeth – do indeed call for a sound that is upbeat, but the real genius of Weill and Brecht’s creation is that he delivers us to rather than from evil on a carriage of seductive appearances and irresistible charm, a reminder that a lady killer kills ladies, literally as well as figuratively. So Rollins, like Wayne Shorter, like Louis Armstrong, like Ella Fitzgrald, and many others who have covered the song, embraces the double-edged sword, or rather submits to one of the most heinous but universal of truths, namely our capacity to deceive and lie and cheat, a theme which is entirely apt in an age of tax avoidance that runs from visible individuals to faceless corporations.

As prized a jazz standard as ‘Mack The Knife’ is, the depth of its cultural resonance can also be discerned in other related forms of music, for the figure of Mack is more than comparable to that of R&B’s badass Negro ‘Stagolee’ and also to the picaresque character of ‘Pedro Navaja’, the louche Latino flick-knife hood memorably evoked by salsa giant Ruben Blades. Having said that, the current production so convincingly hammers home the importance of bucks, booty and ostentatious bling that it is entirely possible that the avarice of the characters as well as their understanding of the enslavement induced by money will have hip hop fans hearing the eerie beats and rhymes of Wu Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’ as the search for cold, hard currency cranks up the climactic heat. Yes, Cash Rules Everything Around Macheath. Note the uncanny linguistic twist: what is a ghetto pimp-prince if he is not… a mack?

Fittingly, Rufus Norris’ fluid direction, ballasted by assured performances from Rory Kinnear (Macheath), Nick Holder (Peachum) and Haydn Gwynne (Mrs Peachum), captures the rushing surf and clinging scum of Mack’s life by way of a revolving stage, leaning towers and descending crescent moons that all serve to underline the feverish and fragile nature of a world of depravity, set to tumble down as easily as a poor chump is dispatched by a sly man with a weapon in both jacket and trousers.  

One of the sharpest visual touches in this respect is the representation of long spurts of blood by a red ribbon, twirling around a neck, trailing from a bosom, or in the case of the hapless Officer Smith, fluttering from a slashed buttock with all the foppish idiocy of the latest fashion victim. This arty butchery is exactly what is required to convey how toxic is the delicatessen of sex, violence and betrayal that pickles away in the story, one of the ultimate urban fables for its zipwire rhythm.

To a certain extent the sprightly sophistry of ‘Mack The Knife’ consolidates the status of jazz as a town rather than country music, a sound for the city in a state of perilous flux. Rollins used the original title ‘Moritat’ (‘Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer’), and the choice could not have been more pertinent. It places the composition in a specific genus: the murder ballad; the dying chorus; the death tune; the show tune with the wrung neck of a funny valentine. It is a reminder that jazz does irony. Mack escapes.

Furthermore, the players at the National trudging dolefully with their brass, banjo and drums have a mild flavour of a New Orleans marching band. That city’s famous son Louis Armstrong started life as a dirt-poor ‘colored waif’. In Brecht’s broken Berlin the cheapest theatre seat cost two eggs and the most expensive a tablespoon of butter.

       Kevin Le Gendre

The Threepenny Opera runs at the National Theatre until 1 October.