Review

THE THREE PENNY OPERA

Direction : Imaad Shah
Cast : Arunoday Singh, Joy fernandes

THE THREE PENNY OPERA Play Review


Deepa Punjani



 THE THREE PENNY OPERA Review
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THE THREE PENNY OPERA play review

Our times demand that we revisit Brecht- Bertolt Brecht who knew all too well about the State versus the Individual, and about corrupting power, no matter in whom it is vested - so it is just as well that the Peachums in THE THREEPENNY OPERA make money out of poverty. Beyond the sociopolitical critiques that his plays invariably made, Brecht was one of the masters at depicting mankind at its sordid and depraved best. Human nature to Brecht was for the most part predictable, despicable, and simply based on survival instincts. There are redeeming characters in his plays no doubt but they come to a tragic end like Macheath in the opera. Yet Brecht never made his people simple and was never one for sentimentality.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA, regarded as one of Brecht's major works, foreshadowed Hitler's rise in Germany and Brecht's eventual exile. The play's authorship does not lay with Brecht alone though. Elisabeth Hauptmann, who was his secretary at the time, and presumably his lover, is said to have written most of it. It was she who introduced Brecht to John Gay's eighteenth century opera called THE BEGGARS OPERA, and translated it from English to German. Her co-authorship status has been controversially deemed as "collaborator". Kurt Weill then provided the music for the version that came to be called THE THREEPENNY OPERA. Both the lyrics and the music are considered to be milestones in the history of twentieth century theatre, and especially of a genre that can qualify as "political-musical" theatre.

In Aadyam's production of the play in collaboration with Motley and directed by Immad Shah, there is an attempt to capture the songs with live music by Felix Hug, Jehangir Jehangir (JJ), Nitish Rambhadran, and by the actors of course. Yet here is a musical that demands neither "pure actors" nor "pure singers". Both music and casting are therefore key. It is this challenging proposition that the production is visibly skirting on, and holding up just enough to avoid skidding off. The poor acoustics of the St. Andrews auditorium made this endeavour doubly difficult if not jarring.

THE THREE PENNY OPERA play review

To the credit of the team, there is a coming together of some of the best actor-singers who work in English in Mumbai, or at least predominantly do. This serious aim delivers a competent production. Another noticeable approach is the seemingly deliberate distance that the cast has taken in that they all appear somewhat detached from their characters as if to ensure that their histrionics and their singing should comfortably merge and that the flow from the words to the lyrics does not sound unnatural or laboured. One has seen some of these actors work in plays where they did not have to sing, and there is an obvious difference. The visible effort for the spoken word and the sung word to be compatible is not without casualty. Save for a few bits, for the most part, the experience is hence removed. This is then doubly amplified by the varying accents of English although spoken well, and the enterprise is thus riddled by one of the thorniest problems that has been Indian English theatre's Achilles' heel. Even as the actors would have us believe they are English, and the play is in its original setting England, the suspension of disbelief, in a very different sense here, is nearly impossible to maintain, because the conventions of this style of theatre simply do not permit it.

Standing out among the cast is Delna Mody who plays Jenny. In her, one is able to appreciate the fine balance that an actor-singer can strike without having to compromise the character. She is not entirely consistent but she makes the deepest impression. Bugs Bhargava (Jonathan Peachum), Joy Fernandes (Tiger Brown) and Suhaas Ahuja (Matthew) are among the more solid actors in the production. Leading man Arunoday Singh (Macheath) is a very sincere actor and that shows in his performance as he teams up with Saba Azad (Polly Peachum), with both of them eventually warming into their parts post interval. Yet Singh's fine and sophisticated appearance does not quite appropriate the sleek and sly Macheath. There is an edge to Macheath; he is a sharp, slippery and debauched rascal. Arunoday Singh in spite of his well-meaning attempt, comes across as just too nice to play the part. The same can almost be said for Saba Azad, who is unable to mirror Polly's ambition. Both their personas are also mismatched. Meher Mistry (Mrs Peachum), who made a fine Beauty in Disney India's musical of THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, is just too shrill.

The set design by the theatre company Motley is clever. It provides the desired backdrops without much fuss. The lights by Yael Crishna, although a little too orchestrated, enhance the framing of the chorus in some neatly executed compositions by the director and the choreographers Auritra Ghosh and Saba Azad. The duo have also kept the choreography uncomplicated and clean. The costumes by Marvin D'Souza and his team are an approximation of the times, the locale and the various characters, but the cloth like the overall production is lacking in soul and spirit. You can always wear something but you need to make it your own - the production belies this in essence. Ambitious as the staging is, one is left to mull over the crevices that this Indian English production opens up, even as it honestly seeks to convey a formidable play for our even more formidable times.

Deepa Punjani is the editor of this website.

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