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17th Oct 2018

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17th October 2018

Director's Note for The Threepenny Opera 

Approaching Brecht as a director feels a lot like being a 9-year-old about to perform the “To be or not to be” soliloquy on stage at The Globe, in front of a full audience of Shakespeare scholars. What if you mess it up? What if you ruin an entire tradition of theatrical theory by doing so? How are you (in your little 9-year-old’s shoes) going to compare to all the experts out there and why are you even trying to make a difference?

 

The breakthrough came with a mini-documentary featuring a diary entry from one of Brecht’s actors; during a rehearsal,  Brecht asked “what idiot wrote this?”, whilst holding his own book. It was at this point that I remembered that Brecht was about breaking as well as making, and that it was okay to experiment and toss the rulebook out the window. So with this in mind, we scrapped the ending and started again.

 

One of the reasons for this decision was that portraying a ‘true’ Threepenny meant following the spirit of the show, rather than the letter - the aim, rather than the exactness. Threepenny is as fun as it is dark, and as chaotic as it is ordered. It’s riotous, but everything and everyone has a place. As the opening banner says: ‘On a night in the heart of London. The beggars beg. The thieves steal. The whores whore.’ This is how the Peachums operate: they make sure everyone stays in their lane so they can stay at the top.

 

So what happens when someone like Mack shows up? Someone who doesn’t play by the rules, who doesn’t go with the role they’ve been set? What happens when a spanner is thrown in the works and a gang leader marries the daughter of a crime lord? The East End of the show is one filled with people with short-term horizons, of not being able to see past the next few weeks, and the Peachums like to keep it that way. We began with an idea; what if Mack wanted to break free of it? He represents a different kind of leadership to Peachum, and one just as bad (it’s important to note that at no point is he to be labelled a ‘hero’), but what if his actions were a result of trying to break the mould? The answer is simple; you try to stop the wheel but the wheel keeps turning.

 

Unashamedly cynical, and yet relentlessly silly, Threepenny is anything but quiet. Our production draws on a cacophony of sources to produce something in which everything is performative, even (and especially) the performance itself. Threepenny is a show that you owe something to, even before you know the show itself. Its influence on theatre, Brecht’s impact on writing and drama, and Weill’s effect on music, changed entertainment forever. Everything from the music of Nick Cave, to modern seasons of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror are indebted to the men that created an entire genre by refusing to comply. That feeling you get at the end of Black Mirror, that rejection of catharsis that leaves you sat, bewildered, with mouth agape at what just happened, is Brecht in action.

 

The result is a show which has been driven by a cast and crew with immense vision, love, and commitment, and a group of people to whom I am forever indebted. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t multiple occasions in a variety of settings where I had to sit back and ask “does this work or is it just bonkers?” but I’ve realised that if this wasn’t the case, we would have definitely been doing it wrong. If nothing good was ever easy, then nothing worth saying was ever achieved simply, or in our case without a lot of party props, and asking “what idiot wrote this?”.

Credit where credit's due

1st October 2018

‘We must make sure to cite all people involved in the production of a work, and call attention to the women used as unpaid assistants on men’s great projects.’

(Kathryn Maude, “Citation and marginalisation”)

 

In Kathryn Maude’s 2014 article, written for the Journal of Gender Studies, she highlights the case of an edition and translation of the medieval text Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, published in 1881. This is the only complete edition of the text, and indeed is the only version accessible without going back to the original manuscript and translating from scratch: it’s the primary (and virtually only) way of accessing a major work of English Literature. The edition is attributed in all forms to Walter W. Skeats, yet in the Preliminary Notice, the following is written by the author:

 

‘The modern English version of the Homilies, though revised by myself, is almost entirely the work of Miss Gunning, of Cambridge and Miss Wilkinson, formerly of Dorking, who with great perseverance have translated not only most of the text as contained in this first part, but nearly all of the remaining Lives belonging to the same series’

 

In short, literally half the work of the edition was done by women, which is not acknowledged at all by any other part of the book, let alone the title page or list of authors. Without the work of these women, our access to the manuscript as we now have it would be non-existent. Yet their names have been lost in history, never to be credited in any academic works, while Skeats’ lives on, cited countless times in countless ways. In Maude’s words, ‘The contribution by these women is never acknowledged in scholarship … Every time this edition is cited, these women are silenced again, and the culture that meant they could not be awarded a degree at that time goes unremarked.’

 

So why is this relevant to The Threepenny Opera? According to Pamela Katz, Brecht ‘may have set a record for the man with the most women to be thought of as "behind" the man, though neither he, nor these women, saw it that way.’ The most important of these women for this show is Elisabeth Hauptmann.

 

It’s not dramatic to assert two things:

-        The Threepenny Opera transformed musical theatre forever

-        Without Elisabeth Hauptmann, The Threepenny Opera would almost certainly not exist

 

Hauptmann not only introduced the source material - John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera - to Brecht, but also translated it into German so they could adapt it (as Brecht barely spoke English), as well as apparently writing a vast amount of the text. Without her, a further three shows under Brecht’s name (Happy End ; St. Joan of the Stockyards ; The Yes-Sayer) would not exist and only do so thanks to her extensive writing, translating, and adapting.

 

However, because of the weight of the names of her collaborators, Hauptmann’s credit often falls to the wayside. As per legal obligations, her name features in the full credits, yet while Brecht’s work is taught in school curriculums, and Weill is heralded as the father of modern music, exceptionally few people would be able to claim knowledge of this woman and her pioneering work.

 

There’s a degree to which some may argue that bringing her name into the light goes against her ethos; her collaborations with Brecht were driven by her beliefs in the promotion of justice within her Marxist principles. This meant that at times, she felt that it was a capitalist approach to art to take credit for work in a collaborative project. At others, that credit was vital for her to make ends meet (particularly while in exile in America). Yet if we promote one contributor, we must acknowledge the work of all of them.

 

At once enigmatic, witty, and cynical, Hauptmann is far too complex to contain within the pages of a programme, just as her relationship with Brecht was, and indeed her relationship with crediting and the spotlight. But whilst women’s voices are scratched from works, or their talents and efforts are attributed to the men in their life, we must continue to champion their names, not just for their sake, but for the generations that look to them to understand their own place in the arts and academia.

 

We may not be able to rewrite history, but we can make sure those who wrote it are given a name and a voice, even if this means one name at a time. We are therefore delighted to present

 

THE THREEPENNY OPERA

A Play with music based upon John Gay's The Beggar's Opera

by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann

English Adaptation by Simon Stephens

 

By arrangement with European American Music Corporation as agent for the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc. and Alan Brodie Representation as agent for The Estate of Bertolt Brecht.

 

Dressing the East End of London - Costumes for Threepenny

29th Sept 2018

Our costume designer, Chloe, took us on a brief tour of the weird and wonderful world of the costumes in Threepenny

 

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