On Theatre

Hip-hop with a Weimar vibe

Bertolt Brecht’s didacticism puts off a lot of people who are sympathetic to a marxist world view

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

This was the month that this critic came within touching distance of returning to a coveted seat in the stalls and the subtle hieroglyphic challenge of trying to scribble notes in the dark. The Royal Opera House hoped that its production of the Brecht-Weill collaboration The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in a double bill with The Seven Deadly Sins might even feature real-live critics in the audience, until it emerged that a show designed primarily for video livestream (one of the new skills for directors and technical staff in the pandemic) meant we would be visible to audiences. So we trudged back to the sofa-stalls instead in a twenty-first century form of the “alienation effect” which would have amused Brecht himself.

Mahagonny is an uphill challenge to stage at the best of times — it spans theatre and opera (hence the 1930 version being named a “song-play”). It was initially cast for operetta voices and it lurches around in chronology and consistency. Brecht wrote it in a period when his driving interest in the theory of didactic Marxist plays and insistence that the audience “dream in blazing clarity” produces characters who are part of a broader social tract.

Mahagonny is an uphill challenge to stage at the best of times — it spans theatre and opera

We are intended to follow and engage with them, but without succumbing to the luxurious bourgeois business of emotional identification or catharsis. Doubtless to keep an online audience invested in watching a work which has hit songs but also longueurs and no small amount of filler orchestration, Isabelle Kettle’s production comes with dance routines from Julia Cheng, who adapts hip-hop and ballet techniques to the 1920s’ Weimar-era vibe.

This version featuring the Opera House’s next generation of talent (via the Jette Parker young artists programme) inevitably links the story of the fantasy city of whisky bars and licentious sex to our own precarious circumstances. Mahagonny, as its final line coquettishly tells us is “a made-up word” — with the sarcastic suggestion that societal collapse and a Gomorrah-style conflagration is where capitalism invariably ends up. This didacticism puts a lot of people off Brecht who are not naturally sympathetic to a worldview which insists these days we are living in “late-stage capitalism”.

But in three decades of watching Brecht productions (including at the Berliner Ensemble in 1980s East Berlin, where the Marxism was applied with the heaviest of trowels) I have never found the works lacking in broader insight — if you allow the Marxism as a prism on the human condition and our relation with economic activity, rather than a dour instruction to embrace whichever revolution is going at the time.

The questions are eternal: is human misconduct and venality simply the inevitable consequence of the pursuit of wealth — “Show us the way to the next little dollar/Oh don’t ask why,” as the “Alabama Song” catchily puts it? Or does it reflect another side of the human psyche which Brecht recognised in himself — namely the tendency to reckless compulsion? The man himself, would not have passed the #MeToo test in his treatment of women, juggling several relationships at the time these works were written.

In any event, for a young, extremely talented ensemble, this double bill is a dream outing, Weill is a lot more demanding to sing well than its jaunty rhythms suggest. Lotte Lenya, whose quavering voice was vividly described by the critic Ernst Bloch as “sweet, high, light dangerous and cool — the radiance of a crescent moon” reflected in the 1950s that, for all the temptations of the “next little dollar” as the post-war period brought a revival of interest in Weill’s work, it no longer fitted her voice, by then pitched “two octaves below laryngitis”.

Young casts have the advantage on this front and the Ukrainian singer Kseniia Nikolaieva is cast here as Bessie, bringing a huge sense of lascivious fun and gravelly quality to the after-hours mood to the part. Stephanie Wake Edwards shows her mettle as a flexible mezzo to watch, upholstered in figure-hugging tulle as Jessie and shape-shifting as Anna I in “Seven Deadly Sins”. Anna II is danced by Jonadette Carpio, leading a nifty choreography with extra dance roles here for the male cast, in disintegrating evening dress: ghostly memories of a Saturday night shiny-floor show, melting sporadically back into the stalls — observers of their own stage incarnations.

In any event, for a young, extremely talented ensemble, this double bill is a dream outing

What do we take from these scrappy, suggestive morality tales now? Some of the lines twang a mournfully humorous chord in our circumstance: “There is no whiskey in this town? There is no bar to sit us down,” is a lament we have shared this last year. One of the implications of Lenya’s famous recording of a Mahoganny staple, “You make your bed, so lie on it” is that her mother warned her that she would “End in the theatre/ Or an even worse place”. Right now, that sounds like a fate I could deal with.

The laws of creative destruction applied their Schumpeterian drive to the scratchy, inventive, pairing of Brecht and Weill which did not last long as they quarrelled over Brecht’s increasingly bossy approach to staging political theatre and personal feuds. But it did leave us The Threepenny Opera as their finest legacy. They fell out so badly that when a magazine photographer was sent to take their picture together, Brecht replied that he would rather “kick that second rate Richard Strauss (Weill) down the stairs”. Yet from the Weimar Republic onwards, the kvetchiest of odd couples in musical-theatre history have something compelling to say about the relationship between homo economicus — and the sheer, system-defying, weirdness of humans.

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