Macheath was conceived as a loveable rogue, a highwayman type, in the original John Gay send-up of opera, politics, society and greed, The Beggar’s Opera, the big innovative hit of the London season in 1728. He is a very appealing anti-hero. He is also a Don Giovanni type. He becomes Mack the Knife in the Brecht/Weill adaptation of the same as The Threepenny Opera. You have probably heard his song. And now the theatre company from Cornwall, Kneehigh, with Associate Director and writer Carl Grose and composer Charles Hazlewood, have turned Macheath into a gun for hire. And like the devil, he has a lot of the best tunes in the show.
This show is another great example of the famous Kneehigh approach to creating vivid theatre. You will find eye-catching puppetry, endless song and dance seamlessly telling the story, the performers also playing instruments and thus helping to make up the musical ensemble throughout; you will also find very Brechtian “Alienation Effects” at every turn, a brilliant set that even includes a slide for the actors to use regularly, and its own Punch and Judy. The story is somewhat complicated and adds a strand that is central to this new version; a strand that has Macheath assassinating an honest mayor (Goodman – get it?) as a gun hired by the Peachums. The Peachums, in this version, are upgraded from merely being successful and rich fences to being very successful and corrupt industrialists who are also heavily implicated in running criminal gangs in the city. As a demagogue, Peachum wants to be mayor; and anyway he had to shut up Goodman who had the goods on him! And Macheath shoots the dog because he is a witness. But the general underlying story is the same as The Beggar’s Opera and The Threepenny Opera until the last half hour or so.
As in the original approach, Charles Hazlewood has used some songs you will find familiar and Grose has rewritten the lyrics to fit the characters and situations. Musically just about every style is there: jazz, pop, ska, punk, ballads. All in all, this is still a kind of Ballad Opera, but very pop-oriented and funky. The plot is perfectly clearly projected by an exceptionally energetic and committed cast. At the centre there has to be a talented and charismatic Macheath, and Dominic Marsh rises to the demands of the role. You accept the symbolism of his criminal life as one of the givens of the story and sympathise with him. Georgia Frost plays a very sympathetic and sweet-natured Filch. Rina Fatania stands out as the devious, powerful, manipulative Mrs Peachum. Angela Hardie as Polly and Beverly Rudd as Lucy Lockit are just as memorable. Indeed, the entire cast works brilliantly as an ensemble of actors, singers, dancers and musicians and does more than one role as necessary. You have to have a lot of skills to work with Kneehigh!
As always, with Kneehigh, this is provocative and very memorable evening of theatre. It is visually engaging, untiringly energetic, and feels urgent and compelling throughout. The Kneehigh production will have you going away thinking. The night I attended most of the audience stood up to applaud and cheer at the end. The show is very generous in every way, including its length; and rich in detail both as a script and as a production.
After its run in Oxford, the show will be going on a tour of these theatres:
Tue 21 May 2019 – Sat 15 June 2019
The Lyric Hammersmith
Tue 18 June 2019 – Sat 22 June 2019
Tue 25 June 2019 – Sat 29 June 2019
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Tue 02 July 2019 – Sat 13 July 2019
Bristol Old Vic
Tue 16 July 2019 – Sat 20 July 2019
Galway International Arts Festival
See Mel’s interview with writer Carl Grose below:
- Musical Satire
- By Carl Grose
- Composer and Music Director: Charles Hazlewood
- Directed by Mike Shepherd
- Puppet Director: Sarah Wright
- Choreography by Etta Murfitt
- Cast includes: Dominic Marsh, Beverly Rudd, Angela Hardie, Georgia Frost, Rina Fatania, Martin Hyder, Giles King, Patrycja Kujawska
- Oxford Playhouse
- In Oxford until 18th May and then touring