The Threepenny Opera. Written by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann. Adapted from The Beggar's Opera by John Gay. Translated by Marc Blitzstein. Music by Kurt Weill. Directed by Aarne Neeme. Musical direction by Ewan. Until March 12. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.
Canberra Repertory's Theatre 3 has been taken over by Aarne Neeme's wonderfully ramshackle production of The Threepenny Opera. In the foyer, the Street Singer (Dick Goldberg in sinister mode) has a hat out for coins even before the show has started. Inside, the large orchestra lounges on a platform in full view of the audience. Props and scenic items litter the side walls. The whole width of the stage has been thrown open and you can even see through into the backstage area as the audience is invited to cast off the desire for traditional stage illusion.
There's not much chance of any other kind of illusion either, as this 1928 German reworking of John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera throws out any hint of theatrical romanticism and instead presents a dark and satirical take on society. As seen by writers Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann with composer Kurt Weill, romance is out the window and the theory runs that the audience is invited to engage the brain rather than the heart.
Time and place are out the window, too, even if act and scene appear projected on to a basic hand-pulled curtain and on the screens either side of the stage. The dress and setting are 1920s and the feeling is Berlin between the wars (the Depression, the rise of fascism) but the plot features Queen Victoria's coronation. It's a toss-up whether the people of this London would rather go to see a queen crowned or the criminal Macheath (Tim Sekuless) executed. Probably both.
It's a brutal world littered with many colourful characters. Of these, Peter Dark makes an urbanely organised master of the beggars as Mr Peachum and is well matched by Sarahlouise Owens in a strong performance as the deeply pragmatic Mrs Peachum.
Helen McFarlane is a striking Jenny Diver and Jim Adamik a sleazy Tiger Brown. Tina Robinson's Polly Peachum clearly has her mother's pragmatism and could build more on that hymn to independence that is Pirate Jenny. Rob de Fries makes lovely cameos out of the Chief Constable and the Warder. And Goldberg might need to watch the tempo, but the words are all clarity when he sings Mack the Knife.
Sekuless' Macheath seems a little nervous of letting the energy out, but he has presence, particularly in the death cell scenes, and his Army Song with Adamik as his old army buddy is a bit of a hoot.
I'm not sure everyone in this huge show, which comes in at a little over three hours, quite knows what kind of theatre they are in stylistically, but it's an absorbing attempt. The sight of an audience galloping back into their seats because the two intervals are down to a tight 10 minutes that has the actors ploughing on regardless of latecomers is one of its most "Brechtian" moments. You certainly can't forget you are in a theatre.