The 2013 Perth Festival kicked off with a bang on Friday, as the heat-withered crowd at His Majesty’s Theatre was jolted by the crack of a rimshot from the orchestra pit, signalling the opening of what was to be one of the most extraordinary nights of theatre they would ever witness.
The Berliner Ensemble, under the direction of Robert Wilson, comes to Australia for the very first time with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.
This production premiered in Berlin in 2007 and has since played around the world, in New York, Paris, Italy, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, and now Perth. It’s an exciting coup for the Perth Festival to bring this acclaimed production to Australian shores and last night’s audience absolutely bubbled over with appreciation for it.
Director Robert Wilson is the visionary genius behind this staging of Threepenny and he has created a visual masterpiece that lives, breathes, and sings. From our first introduction to the grotesque characters that populate the Threepenny world, as they slowly make their way across the proscenium in a parade of ghouls, we are stunned by a veritable cavalcade of precisely-crafted visual moments that Wilson, who helmed the set and lighting design as well, has sculpted for us.
He has assembled a cast that would make Tim Burton jealous, and has gone to every effort to make them as cartoonish as possible. They look like they have been de-saturated in Photoshop; their faces are painted a whiter shade of pale and their comical expressions are permanently etched in black. He may or may not have gone to the Ministry of Silly Walks for a grant to develop all the silly walks to be found here. Macheath, the central character, is equal parts Liberace, Julie Andrews from Victor/Victoria and Danny Kaye, but they’re all heightened, exaggerated caricatures. Every gesture, every expression, every stance has been precisely choreographed to compose Wilson’s ever-unfolding tableaux of light and form.
It is a challenge to continually shift one’s focus from the surtitles to the action on stage; here, the dialogue and lyrics were projected with what seemed like a 2-second delay, so words that were obviously punctuated for humorous effect by the actors got a 2-second delayed reaction from the audience. This, combined with the brisk pace of the spoken word, forced my brain to multi-task in a way it wasn’t used to on a Friday night after a long week. However, if you can accept that you might miss a handful of words and lyrics in favour of seeing some of the most beautifully haunting stage pictures you are ever likely to witness, then this should not be an issue.
This poor man’s opera sounded just that. The orchestra was suitably clunky and tinny, the trumpet player cracked notes in all the right spots and the sax squawked over the top of the din, all crafted to provide a vintage music hall atmosphere. The singers sang on time and in tune, but there was no artifice to their vocals. There wasn’t the usual gloss you’d find in most musical theatre; here the songs are merely part of the script put to music. Some might find this disappointing, but I found it refreshing, and a welcome change from the ubiquitous Broadway warble.
Perhaps the most incredible and memorable part of the night for everyone was what transpired during the curtain call. The audience was unwilling to let go of these beautiful creatures after two bows, prompting the cast to retreat to the wings, only to reappear for individual bows. Even this wasn’t enough to slow the outpouring of love from the crowd and the group reassembled for yet another bow and nod to the orchestra. And when that did nothing to stop the applause, they brought out the director and all the stagehands and crew from backstage. In all, there was probably 7-10 minutes of rapturous standing ovation from the opening night crowd for this spectacular piece of theatre, and every bit of it was deserved.