19 February 2014
By Colin Hambrook
The Threepenny Opera is a precursor to many modern musicals and now The New Wolsey Theatre’s Peter Rowe and Graeae’s Jenny Sealey have joined forces to bring what promises to be an anarchic version of the story to theatres in Nottingham, Ipswich, Birmingham and Leeds. In conversation with Garry Robson who plays JJ Peachum.
At the time Brecht and Weill wrote and produced The Threepenny Opera in Germany in the late 1920s, it received much acclaim on stages throughout Europe. As Hitler came to power so the production reflected the state of play for the downtrodden and dispossessed as the Weimar Republic gave way to the rise of Nazism. Graeae's new production brings the story up to date to reflect our current economic times. We see the poor being scapegoated and held up to blame for their fecklessness on a daily basis. Thankfully we don't yet have the storms that were happening at the time when The Threepenny Opera was first produced when many were being marched off to concentration camps, but there are parallels within the story for the thousands who are dying on the back of the changes in the benefit system.
Graeae are bringing a cast of largely younger disabled performers to the theatre. Of the old hands it's hard to imagine a disabled actor more fit for The Threepenny Opera than Garry Robson with his leanings towards the gothic and macabre in his backlog of previous credits. Robson told me: "In many respects the role of JJ Peachum was made for me. He's very much the cheeky chappy with a steel rod running through everything he says and does." Robson went on to tell me: "the story is underpinned by a gothic element. The design has a very black and white feel, which reflects Pabst's expressionistic 1931 film version, Die 3-Groschen-Oper. The new production is set slightly in the future with a new monarch and new times on the horizon. And my character who was the King of the Beggars in the original John Gay opera becomes the leader of the underworld. He creates beggars who are fit for purpose; and who can make a living on the streets."
The conceit of Graeae's new production is that the cast are a group of activists who who want to take on the cause of the homeless. And so you see the cast initially outside the theatre as part of a would be Occupation Movement who are taking over the theatre to stage the opera to rally around the cause of the poor in our times.
To get the rights to The Threepenny Opera you have to follow an original translation of the script. But Robson tells me it's striking how much about Disability is written into the play. "My character talks about 'the happy cripple; always free, always carefree'. There is a lot of satirical use of language - and because we are an integrated cast that in itself speaks volumes." However, he goes on to say: "Jeremy Sams has updated the lyrics to touch on many of the current causes and scandals and within that he brings a disability angle to the fore on the back of those stories."
Graeae are clearly very excited to be taking the show to four major producing houses and it's great for the disability arts movement in general to have that level of exposure and to have major theatres taking the needs of working with disabled and deaf performers into consideration. With the support of all the contributing partners Graeae have also attempted a lot of experimentation in the challenge of creating access. Graeae pushed the boundaries with BSL in the acclaimed Reasons to be Cheerful. In The Threepenny Opera they're taking audio-description to another stage. In this production you can expect to hear several characters making elements of the audio-description audible to the whole house
And so for example John Kelly as the narrator of the story describes the set during the scene changes, making it a natural part of the performance rather than something that's tacked on for a small group. Robson says: "These things are creative challenges and we have to keep working with them; keep developing them to enhance the audiences' theatrical experience.”
Graeae are well-versed in bringing a rock and roll sensibility to their productions and so you can expect to see them raise the roof once more with all the dissonance of the infamous songwriting within The Threepenny Opera. As Robson relates: "In recent rehearsals Robert Hyman was admonishing the musicians to play the notes as written. ‘I know they don't sound right, but just play the dots’."
And so on that note I very much look forward to catching up with The Threepenny Opera which tours from 21st Feb until 10th May to Nottingham Playhouse, New Wolsey Theatre, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse. For more details please click on this link to Dao's events listings.