Tag Archives: Robert David MacDonald

The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera


Cockpit Theatre

THE THREEPENNY OPERA at the Cockpit Theatre


The Threepenny Opera

“A promising opening, that isn’t quite sustained throughout.”

We walk into the ‘Factory of Plays’. A kind of warped bandstand sits centre stage, with mannequin torsos circling it; grotesque and absurdist, some attached to rope like an umbilical cord. Or a hangman’s noose. The front rows of the auditorium are littered with musical instruments. An accordion, trombone, trumpet, cello, clarinet. A banjo here, a Hawaiian guitar there. The space feels abandoned as though some frenetic activity has been interrupted. The truncated figures, like a troupe of mute Frankenstein’s creatures, waiting to be brought back to life. Enter two inventors, in white lab coats, followed by a cast of actor musicians in high-vis jackets.

This is the premise behind the OVO Theatre’s interpretation of the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill ‘play with music’. Translated by Robert David MacDonald (dialogue) and Jeremy Sams (lyrics), it adopts many ‘Brechtian’ characteristics. There is no fourth wall whatsoever here as we witness the action being created in front of us. Characters step out of the narrative to talk to us. A phone is borrowed, a beer bottle grabbed and swigged from (oh, how far we have thankfully moved on from the specious sensitivities of the pandemic), scenes are interrupted by metallic tones and bizarre announcements. We are never quite sure where we are. There is something Orwellian. Dystopian. Yet grounded in present day politics. A Clockwork Orange meets Boys from the Blackstuff. A promising opening, that isn’t quite sustained throughout.

Macheath appears, chimera-like from within a cage to the strains of his signature tune. It is uncertain whether he is being created or born. He emerges savvy and streetwise, but with a menace that is too soft at the edges. Peter Watts is clearly enjoying the role, initially channelling Harold Steptoe but then allowing his natural charisma steers him into more dangerous territory. However, the sense of true danger is never quite realised in Adam Nichols’ staging. He allows the slapstick to overshadow nuance.

“Musically it is spot on”

Mark Carlisle’s Peachum has a gravitas as Macheath’s nemesis, aided by Annette Yeo’s feisty Mrs Peachum. Their tentative hold over the beggars of London is challenged when their daughter Polly (Emily Panes) marries Macheath. Panes dresses Polly in innocence – a veil that is easily torn by Macheath’s unscrupulous womanising, allowing her to reveal the dormant steeliness. Panes has one of the stronger singing voices. Although the cast comprises an all singing, all playing company, they don’t always meet the musical challenges. Harmonies and tuning are further loosened by conductor Lada Valešová constantly ducking and diving, like an itinerant beggar, around the playing space. Song introductions suffer from a slight delay while she locates the various musicians, and vice versa. This stop-start stodginess permeates much of the first act, and it is only after interval that the flow finds its true course.

Musically it is spot on, avoiding the pitfalls of some modern interpretations of jollifying the compositions. And Brecht’s intentions are duly honoured. The absurdity is in plain sight and the surrealism defies theatrical convention. But rather than neatly slotting into the narrative, frustratingly some choices are just a touch too bizarre and random, and we disengage as our understanding gets muddied. Nearly a hundred years ago when it opened in Berlin, the work was a radical critique of the capitalist world. It is indeed just as relevant today, and doesn’t necessarily need modern anachronisms, especially ones as clumsy as slipping in references to William and Kate into the libretto, or offhand allusions to Boris Johnson. The themes are more universal than that and Brecht and Weill deserve more respect.

What cannot be avoided is the original disjointed ending, which this production does manage to pull off cohesively and with an emotional commitment that makes sense of the satire. This is largely due to Watts’ performance, his rendition of ‘Call from the Grave’ one of the highlights. Society hasn’t really changed much since “The Threepenny Opera” first premiered. The moral messages are just as raw. OVO’s interpretation retains that rawness – and the genuine grit, even if it doesn’t always grip.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA at the Cockpit Theatre

Reviewed on 21st September 2023

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Elliott Franks



Previously reviewed at this venue:

My Body Is Not Your Country | ★★★ | August 2023
End Of The World Fm | ★★★ | August 2023
Love Goddess, The Rita Hayworth Musical | ★★ | November 2022
999 | ★★★ | November 2022
The Return | ★★★ | November 2022
L’Egisto | ★★★ | June 2021

The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera

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Don Carlos – 2 Stars

Don Carlos

Don Carlos

Rose Theatre Kingston

Reviewed – 7th November 2018


“passionless, tedious, and incoherent”


Friedrich Schiller, renowned German writer and radical member of the ‘storm and stress’ movement, is not unfamiliar to British audiences, with a well-reviewed production of “Don Carlos” starring Derek Jacobi and Richard Coyle hitting the West End as recently as 2005. “Don Carlos” is a prime example of Schiller at work: passionate, witty, and brimming with revolutionary ideas about freedom and power.

Despite some cool aesthetics and apt use of lighting however, this version, produced by Tom Burke and Gadi Roll’s new theatre company Ara, is passionless, tedious, and incoherent. In terms of plot, ‘Don Carlos’ takes place around the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War when Dutch provinces began fighting to free themselves from the rule of Spain and its king, Phillip II. Prince Don Carlos’ former lover recently married his father, and his declarations of love for his new stepmother kick start various court schemes to dispose of prince on one side, and to rebel against the king on the other. How can freedom be won from tyranny, and who will be left to pick up the pieces?

Robert David MacDonald’s translation – first staged in 1995 – retains the lyricism and wit of the original at times, but in an effort to be ‘accurate’, unfurls absurdly long and convoluted sentences that feel foreign to this contemporary audience. If Roll had been able to perhaps adapt the text to his liking, he may have produced a more engaging and better flowing piece of theatre, allowing the vital themes to shine through without the 18th century linguistic baggage. Furthermore, the actors visibly struggle with this text. Scenes become shouting matches, the actors whipping out lines as fast as they can hoping to create pace and energy but instead just becoming unintelligible. In the verbal carnage, meaning and nuance is lost.

Although Rosanna Vize’s design, forcing light in actors faces up close and personal, neatly reflects the accusatorial and inquisitorial nature of the plot, the general direction and staging is confused and inconsistent. A dark stage with all actors dressed in black or navy makes the events seem timeless and contemporary but is a dull and monotonous visual choice. There is an obvious desire for pace, and yet scene changes are laborious and slow down the action – it’s a stripped back setting, so why so many chairs, tables, beds? Actors are often stood in parallel and remain there scene after scene. Roll’s sound design, an odd mix of sentimental strings and tension building drums, intrudes obtusely into conversation without any obvious purpose and becomes both distracting and another thing for the actors to shout over.

Burke and Roll have been ambitious, admirably seeking to create stylised drama that goes beyond “the naturalism of television and film”, but they still have much to learn to ensure style does not trample over substance. Be rougher with the classics and don’t allow acting to come second place to design. As a Germanophile, I found this very disappointing.


Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich

Photography by The Other Richard


Don Carlos

Rose Theatre Kingston until 17th November


Previously reviewed at this venue:
Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde | ★★ | February 2018
Much Ado About Nothing | ★★★★ | April 2018


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