I last saw Brecht and Kurt Weill's savage musical in 1989 on Broadway in a Victorian-themed production directed by John Dexter with a lacklustre Sting as Macheath and it also marked the last time I saw Georgia Brown on stage as she played Mrs Peachum with her usual full-throated singing (Georgia had played Lucy Brown in a 1956 Royal Court production). However I know the show best through the 1976 New York cast recording with Raul Julia as Macheath, Caroline Kava as Polly Peachum and Ellen Greene as Jenny Diver.
After the disaster that was WONDER.LAND I was worried what director Rufus Norris would do with another musical on the Olivier stage but we are on firmer ground here and I enjoyed his inventive and surprising production very much. We saw it in preview and certain longueurs will hopefully tighten up.
The big surprise in the casting was that Rory Kinnear is playing Macheath. the murderous anti-hero at loose as London readies itself for a coronation parade. I knew he would be able to play the part with ease but I was surprised how well he sang it too, although his way of hitting the consonants in the lyrics got a bit wearing. However he was an excellent Macheath, a darkly evil focus for the show's action.
What Norris' production proved beyond all else is that the best roles go to the women in the cast - the poor men didn't stand a chance. Like his namesake in THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, Brecht's Macheath may love the women but they constantly betray him or leave him confounded and here Kinnear has his hands full with four full-on performances from Haydn Gwynne as the vengeful Mrs Peachum, Rosalie Craig as her lovelorn but shrewd daughter Polly, Sharon Small as a very Scottish Jenny Diver and Debbie Kurup as Lucy Brown.
I blow hot and cold with Rosalie Craig as a performer - I found her a rather anonymous Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT on the same stage - but here she gave a sparky performance as Macheath's latest conquest Polly Peachum and was also in excellent voice with great renditions of "Pirate Jenny" and "Barbara Song". She was also nicely bitchy in her "Jealousy Duet" with Debbie Kurup's Lucy Brown, her rival for Macheath.
Sharon Small was also very good as the prostitute Jenny Diver whose lust for Macheath doesn't stop her betraying him to the Peachums and Haydn Gwynne was almost unrecognizable as the tottering, unfaithful wife of the crime boss Peachum who runs all the beggars in London and who reveals that she too has been Macheath's mistress in the past. Her whole look appears to be based on Otto Dix' famous portrait of the notorious Weimar German cabaret dancer Anita Berber.
Despite these heavy-hitting actresses, there was much to enjoy in Nick Holder's bulky but brutal Peachum - especially when he appears in a Louise Brooks bobbed wig - and there was excellent supporting performances from Matt Cross' wonky policeman Officer Smith and George Ikediashi - better known as the cabaret singer Le Gateau Chocolat - was in resonant voice as The Balladeer who ushers the show in with "The Ballad of Mack The Knife".
Simon Stephen's adaptation promised filthy language along with immoral behaviour but I was very disappointed in the swearing to be honest - I could have done with more! Shepherd gives a particular gay spin to Macheath's relationship with the police chief Tiger Brown which actually worked within the dynamic of Brecht's original - Macheath will do *anything* to get away with his crimes - but Shepherd also changes the final moments of the play which sits less successfully.
Rufus Norris' production constantly surprised and used the bare Olivier stage well. Vicki Mortimer's set mainly consisted of wooden frames and sheets of brown paper to be slashed or burst through - Norris said he wanted a set that looked cheap to stage - and the irony is it probably cost a fortune! Paule Constable's lighting design is also hugely effective.
Kurt Weill's score might have been written in 1928 but it still sounds as cutting-edge as Macheath's machete, and is wonderfully vibrant under the musical direction of David Shrubsole and the seven other onstage musicians.
We are seeing it again in two weeks - what better recommendation can you have than that? The production is currently booking up until October.