Subtext will always be a tricky thing to get right. Often, its hazards come in the form of piling too much on: the allegory that may as well just say whatever it’s so strongly hinting at; the supposedly sly nudge so insistent it leaves a bruise. Less common is the situation in which requisite subtext has been abandoned altogether, leaving the resulting piece a bit hollow, making you wonder what exactly all of its fuss is about.
Attic Collective’s production of The Threepenny Opera falls into the latter category. When a play’s very lifeblood is its social commentary, opting to recast it as a Punch-and-Judy tale of gangsters and beggars renders it something like an adaptation of Animal Farm in which no one clocked that the whole thing is about Communism. Here, where there was once a satire on bourgeois mores, there’s now a lot of shouting and shoving against proscenium walls; rather than a Polly who is cut-throat and business savvy, we’re left with a melodramatic moll with little to do but alternately sob and seduce.
Likewise, the sardonic critiques in the show’s didactic songs are left behind in favour of mere musical numbers: the miserable aspects of the Wedding Song and the misanthropic bitterness of How to Survive are performed with equal lightness, at times complete with kick-line. But, though generally well-executed (particularly by the five-piece orchestra), by foregoing any of the impact behind the words, it then becomes difficult to make The Ballad of Mack the Knife outbelt Bobby Darin or Pirate Jenny match the joyously homicidal fury of Nina Simone.
Though lacking from its content, the staging was allocated its quotidian share of Brechtian alienation, as costumes were taken from racks and bits of lighting were powered by bicycles that covered more and more of the stage as the show progressed. The costuming itself was purposefully anachronistic; during the show’s most genuinely affecting moment, the company’s Mack the Knife, replete in post-Captain Morgan jacket, performed the melancholy Tango-Ballad alongside a Jenny decked out in something akin to a one-piece Sexy Dalek costume.
Ultimately, the most unsatisfying thing about Attic’s Threepenny Opera was its complete absence of any provocation. Any play nearing ninety years old is hardly going to stay as dangerous as when it started out; but to be performed without the slightest hint of what dangers it once intended is to do it a disservice. Ironically for a play set amongst such an ostensibly violent milieu, the more actual violence you put into it, the more bloodless it becomes.
Photos courtesy of Greg MacVean.
For more information on the programme at the King’s Theatre click here.