Born out of Germany’s economic meltdown in the 1920s, “The Threepenny Opera” puts the destitute and desperate onstage — a remarkable thing at the time. Rather than refresh its reality for our own financial crisis, director Rufus Norris and playwright Simon Stephens turn it into a (three)penny dreadful, as keystone cops chase red-striped robbers and Marvel-ous villains take on the system. Now playing at the National Theater, it’s a classy production — too classy to make Brecht’s case for the poor. Instead, it goes after art, the way popular drama tends to fetishize lowlifes and misfits.
Given a brusque update by Stephens, pockmarked with genital jokes and other crudities, this “Threepenny” lands in London — specifically, the last remnants of the old East End. Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, his sleepless eyes red raw, might look like a banker in his bowler hat and pinstripe suit, but he snarls like a gangster prowling his patch. There’s no glamor about him, nor any joy. He kills for a living; no more, no less. We judge at our peril: “We can’t have ethics that we can’t afford,” he scowls our way.
That might be Brecht’s point — that capitalism contains its own corruption — but this is too lavish a production to really stand by it. Vicki Mortimer’s design, a grubby sideshow of historical London, is poor theater on a big budget. All those old flyropes and brown paper flats aren’t revealing the mechanics, but faking them for that louche Weimar look. Norris deploys the staple Brechtian techniques — characters squawk “scene change” to move things along — but they come laced with irony, all knowingly naive. Props gets self-evident labels; signs set each scene. It’s basically pastiche, one big epic spoof. This is straight-up entertainment: Brecht for the bourgeoisie. Somebody’s turning in his grave tonight.
On those terms, though, it is what it is. It looks a treat, and it’s played with real relish. A po-faced eight-piece band blasts through Kurt Weill’s astonishing atonal score, with George Ikediashi (better known as his cabaret alter-ego, Le Gateaux Chocolate) using his velvety bass to full effect in the opening number.
In a world where everyone’s on the take, there are some vivid cartoon characters, archly performed. Nick Holder’s pear-shaped Peacham, suited and beautied with eyeshadow and lipstick, sashays around in his little kitten heels, conducting ranks of balaclava-clad beggars. As his wife, Haydn Gwynne is a gangly hag, spraying vomit around like a fire extinguisher, while Rosalie Craig’s Polly is a goody two-shoes with a head for numbers and a steely core. She more than matches Debbie Kurup’s street-smart Lucy Brown, who’s straight outta Harlem.
Mac’s gang make a lovely ragbag bunch as well, from Dominic Tighe’s upper-crust “Iceman” to Hammed Animashaun’s hit-chasing Jimmy Retail. They’re bolstered by Jamie Beddard, an actor with cerebral palsy, scoring with every punchline.
Trouble is, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Without the anger to back up the politics, it’s little more than diverting.