Scene from Robert Wilson's production of Brecht's Threepenny Opera.
TO ANYONE with an eye for the Australian festival circuit, one of the highlights of 2013 is the production of Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera from the great dramatist's own company, the Berliner Ensemble, making its first appearance in Australia under the direction of one of the most celebrated figures in contemporary theatre, Robert Wilson.
Brecht's Weimar Republic musical isn't set in any time or place in this production, though the imagery suggests the slinky sexed-up world that Threepenny sprang from - the doomed moment between wars that produced Kurt Weill's music with Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny, and all that savage, sparkling cabaret we associate with a decadent, anything-goes German world that had no time for the Nazis but seemed to see them like leering shadows on the wall.
Wilson's production headlines the Perth Festival from February 8 and a lot of people who care about theatre will be off to the city of mining riches to see this devastating, black-hearted musical that Brecht and Weill wrote as a murderous, if hilarious, critique of capitalism and its discontents.
I talked on the phone before Christmas to Ann-Kristin Rommen, Wilson's co-ordinating director on this production.
''Working with Bob Wilson,'' she says, ''from doing Wagner's Ring to King Lear and Threepenny Opera, it's always the same approach. You start by doing it silently, and it's all about movement. Then we let it rest for a few months and go back to place the text with that movement created earlier. He wants to be sure the visual book is as strong as the audio, it has to stand on its own.
''I come back and place the text so that it makes sense! It cannot be arbitrary. But what you get when you put them together is a complex truth, a way of moving and speaking that you might not get if you were simply illustrating what you're saying.''
Rommen says this process of separating out the elements of a show then recombining them treats every aspect of theatrical craft with equal seriousness, on its own aesthetic terms. It is a more radical imagining than the usual sort of production which just starts with the text.
''Wilson takes light very seriously. Light for him is like an actor. You need the same time and attention as you would with an actor, and because he's Robert Wilson, because of his history, he gets the time and money to make that happen,'' she says.
This isn't to say that the words are devalued in this style of theatre. The opposite, in fact. Rommen illustrates the complicated way they're used in this production: ''If I say ''I'M GOING TO KILL YOU,'' she bellows down the phone in a hostile, boorish way, ''that's one thing. But if I say,'' - and here her voice becomes whispery and charming and sinister in tone - ''I'm going to kill you … well, that's rather more scary and strange.''
When you put that together with the seriousness with which Wilson illuminates his visual conception of Threepenny, you have a potent method of avoiding the shorthand of the cheaply lifelike, and it does sound compatible with Brecht's ideas about alienation techniques and resisting an easy dramatic illusion.
''Brecht always wanted the distance between the actor and the actor looking down at himself acting,'' Rommen says, ''It's close to what Wilson always does. He may be the perfect director for Threepenny.'' Even Brecht's daughter reportedly said of this production: ''Papa would approve''.
It's fascinating to wonder how Brecht - the man who is universally acknowledged as the greatest innovator in 20th-century theatre but whose work is always shadowed by the intensity of his Marxist politics (and in some sense therefore by yesterday's politics; he was the theatre magician of communist East Berlin) - will thrive in the hands of the strenuous experimentalist whose tableaux-like work Melbourne audiences have seen in I La Galigo and The Temptation of St Anthony.
Wilson's Threepenny may be magisterially orchestrated, classical and abstract, but it is all as a way of telling the truth. He also allows more fun by making things so mean. Fun is an interesting concept and a complex one because it allows for the stylisation of satire. So, if Gay's The Beggar's Opera (of which Threepenny is a modernist cartoon) is itself an ''anti-opera'', is the Brecht/Weill piece an ''anti-musical''?
''Threepenny itself was an anti-opera,'' Rommen replies, ''That's what it was in the '20s. It used a lot of jazz, folk, music that was not meant to be heard in an opera house. It was making fun of the operatic structure. But an 'anti-musical'? I don't know. Maybe it is the true form of a musical - it reinforces by music and song things that can't be said as well in speech. The songs can give another direction to a thought, a different intensity.''
But can this Threepenny be taken from its German context? Well, the production has just been to Sao Paulo in Brazil, where audiences were ''laughing their heads off''. ''It's short and tight,'' Rommen says. ''Our challenge is to make it as precise and perfect in Perth as it is in Berlin.''
What about the suggestion critics have made that Wilson's version turns the actors into marionettes? Rommen doesn't like this idea one bit. ''This is a criticism that comes up with Wilson all the time,'' she says with some asperity, ''because his work is formal, abstract. It isn't naturalistic. What we do is artificial. We don't try to be natural, we try to be true. It's all about what's happening in the moment. The actors don't feel like they're puppets, by the way; the process is a great help to them.''
And the mystery of Threepenny Opera, Rommen believes, is that there's something about the contrast - the tension between the manner and the method, the elegance and the savagery in this black-hearted work - that touches the audience. Entertaining people is easy with so many landmark songs, but making the audience feel complicit in the work's arbitrariness and injustice is another matter.
Such are the intimidations and joys for a group of world-renowned theatre progressives bringing this gangster musical to life at a precarious moment in capitalism's history.
Rommen is right to say of Threepenny that ''it was written for this moment''. It will be interesting to see what happens when it is performed in Perth - the city of Gina Rinehart - a city insulated by distance and flush with the gold of China, one of the more complex tyrannies since Hitler fused capitalism and totalitarianism only a few years after Brecht saw the shadows of criminals as the world's true soul, and turned it into song.