Graeae's production of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera attempts to provoke thinking around approaches to creative access. Liz Porter caught the show in Ipswich and sent in the following review, written from a visually impaired perspective
The new production of The Threepenny Opera is a timely and well-considered choice. It is encouraging that the partner organisations (Nottingham Playhouse, New Wolsey Theatre, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse) want to reinvigorate debate around possibilities to involve Deaf and disabled professionals in mainstream Musical Theatre productions. It is also good that this inaugural tour is outside of London. (Although I sincerely hope it comes to London at a later stage)
Co-directors Peter Rows (New Wolsey Ipswich) and Jenny Sealey (GRAEAE) have brought an impressively talented integrated cast of Deaf disabled and non-disabled actor musician’s together as a result of a rigorous audition process. It is clear that the cast are having a ball doing this show as the delivery is playful and poignant.
Mark Smith’s movement direction pulls the ensemble together with good use of space. The singing is often sublime and saucy, with particularly strong characterisation from Garry Robson (Mr Peacham) and Amelia Cavallo (Jenny), extraordinary vocals from Victoria Orawari (Mrs Peacham) and a very sexy duet between CiCi Howells (Polly) and Jude Mahon (BSL interpreter).
The design and feel of the set conveys a stark grey cleanness, contrasting with swathes of flowing red material in the opening section signalling underlying macabre layers. However, it felt nothing like as dark as it could have been with leanings towards pantomime. Milton Lopas (Macheath) was a striking presence with warm and gentle vocals but he lacked conviction with the menacing and dangerous aspects of his performance. I think this was the directorial intention, making the audience peel back layers, see what lies underneath. I'm not sure it completely worked.
The new English translation of the dialogue (Robert David McDonald) and lyrics (Jeremy Sams) creates a tension between the past, present and future. As the audience we question life for the oppressed through wicked political satire. This is a busy and often crowded experience with 21 actor/ musicians on stage for the majority of time. The degree of concentration needed made it difficult to emotionally engage and pull all the strands of the story together.
Collectively the partner theatres are clearly committed to examining potential roles for developing an inclusive aesthetic around creative access. However, basic access guidelines were not always addressed with some surprising decisions made – particularly around the film captioning and audio description. The pre-show access information on display was great. It included programme notes and character descriptions (described by the actors), which were also available on headsets. There was a show synopsis in alternative formats, braille, LP easy read and BSL as well as swatches of costume fabrics to convey the look and feel of the show up close.
The idea of having a narrator/ describer was a clever one and John Kelly’s descriptions did help set up the scenes. However, he provided basic description which was not always consistent. Other actors were engaged in delivering audio-description that visually-impaired audiences are receiving through headsets as scenes unfold. But some performers were more able to rise to this challenge than others. Some of the best description was given by Amelia Cavallo who is visually impaired herself. It would have taken things one step further had the describers stayed in character. I’d have loved the audience to experience more description than they got.
The show is a visual feast with multi-layered approaches including film with captioning. When a show is so visual, making decisions about access and which bits are described and signed is complex. The creative interpretation often got in the way of clear access, for example the font size and bubble writing that appeared on screen was difficult for many. I could see some of the film images and remarkably some of the larger captioning but it wasn’t consistent and I missed a lot which was frustrating as some film images were presenting key subtext information.
The film work also took place in different spaces. The intention was clearly to keep the audience engaged. However because there was no description I was having to work very hard to keep up. I did wonder what it would have been like if I’d been nearer the front or had the opportunity to have an IPAD on my lap, which might bring the film experience nearer and could have had description woven into it. Perhaps that is something that could be explored as a low cost solution? It would be great to have pre-show access to song lyrics as this also helps people understand the story
I attended an after show workshop around creative access which was a great opportunity to have a conversation around some of these themes; flag up ideas and hear other’s perspectives.
It isn’t GRAEAE’s responsibility to solve all creative access problems, but a wider audience does look to the company for example especially when it’s so hard to convince funders of the need to support good practice financially.
This production grabs you way beyond the end of the show and I certainly want to catch it again. (although I hope I’m sitting nearer the front next time).