Authentic but unengaging Threepenny Opera from Barrie Kosky and the Berliner Ensemble in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2023 [12] – Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera: Soloists and Musicians of the Berliner Ensemble / Adam Benzwi (musical director). Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 19.8.2023. (SRT)

Barrie Kosky and the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera © Jess Shurte

When Edinburgh-based friends have asked me for recommendations as to what to see in this year’s festival, my go-to choice has been The Threepenny Opera. However, the first thing I said to any of them was ‘It’s not an opera!’

It isn’t, but what is it? Cabaret? Play? Singspiel? Written by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann with music by Kurt Weill it is undeniably a problem piece. No director ever tries to put it on completely complete, so it’s always cut, spliced or otherwise amended, but what do you want it to be once that is all done?

Barrie Kosky doesn’t seem to have decided either. On paper, this Threepenny Opera should have been absolutely terrific, hence my recommendation to my friends. It is performed by the ensemble for whom it was written and who have probably performed it more times than any other group, so the air of authenticity hangs over every note. Furthermore, Kosky is the director of the moment, who seems to be able to create theatrical gold with everything he touches.

Barrie Kosky and the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera © Jess Shurte

He has made a rare misfire here, though. On the one hand his staging creates an abstract space that resembles a climbing frame for grown-ups, full of ladders and boxes that seem to cut the characters off from one another while only briefly allowing any interaction. On the other, however, he cranks up the grotesquerie to reinforce the fact that every one of Brecht’s characters is a total monster with whom you would never want to spend any time, thereby removing much of the mood of tongue-in-cheek cabaret that the piece can often fall back on.

Furthermore, some of his basic directorial instincts seem to have deserted him. The text he uses cuts entire characters but still ends up being far too long, and there are some desperately tedious scenes, most notably involving Macheath’s final meal, which had me longing for the curtain to fall. He also milks Brecht’s famous ‘distancing effect’ by getting the actors to demand applause from the audience (at excruciating length) and with some staid interaction with the pit band. Brecht may well have put some of this breaking-of-the-fourth-wall into his text, but Kosky lets it overrun for much longer than it should, making it as clever-clever as it is tiresome.

The musical picture is mixed, too, but the one place on which this show definitely scores highly is the playing of the Berliner Ensemble musicians. It is impossible to imagine it being performed any closer to Brecht and Weill’s original ideas, with the wheezy saxophones, insolent brass, twerky guitar and hyperactive drums. Adam Benzwi holds it all together expertly while playing the piano and harmonium, sometimes simultaneously.

Many of the singers have that whiff of the Weimar Republic about them, too, helped by the fact that they are all amplified and so come much more from the music theatre tradition than the opera one. Gabriel Schneider oozes charisma as Macheath and spits his way through some of his scabrous songs. Tilo Nest has bags of character as Peachum and, on balance, Pauline Knof is the best of the women as his wife. Her Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a real highlight. Cynthia Micas has a distinctively coloured voice as Polly, and Kathrin Wehlisch adds something unique as the police chief in drag. Perhaps the one with the most Weillian voice is Josefin Platt as the enigmatic Moon Over Soho: she gets to sing Mack the Knife, and listening to her deep rasping is enough to transport you instantly back to 1920s Berlin. Amelie Willberg and Bettina Hoppe are much less engaging as Lucy and Jenny, however. With Willberg, in particular, I had to wonder to what extent she was intentionally making her voice ugly.

So too long, unsure of itself and with a mixed musical landscape. It is enough to make me suspect that Barrie Kosky has feet of clay, after all.

None of my Edinburgh friends bought a ticket in the end. After actually seeing the show, I was relieved.

Simon Thompson

The Edinburgh International Festival runs at venues across the city until Sunday 27th August click here for details.

Director – Barrie Kosky
Stage designer – Rebecca Ringst
Costume designer – Dinah Ehm
Lighting designer – Ulrich Eh
Sound designer – Holger Schwark
Dramaturg – Sibylle Baschung

Tilo Nest – Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum
Pauline Knof – Celia Peachum
Cynthia Micas – Polly Peachum
Gabriel Schneider – Macheath, aka Mack the Knife / Filch
Kathrin Wehlisch – Brown
Amelie Willberg – Lucy
Bettina Hoppe – Ginny-Jenny
Josefin Platt – The Moon Over Soho
Nicky Wuchinger – Smith\
Julia Berger, Julie Wolff, Nicky Wuchinger, Dennis Jankowiak – Macheath’s Gang, Robbers, Muggers and Whores
Heidrun Schug (double for The Moon Over Soho)

Adam Benzwi – Piano, Harmonium
James Scannell – Alto Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute, Piccolo
Doris Decker – Saxophones
Lorenz Jansky – Trumpet
Otwin Zipp – Double bass
Stephan Genze – Percussion
Ralf Templin – Guitar

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