A TALE OF cheapskates and liars, an anti-capitalist dictum couched in some of the Western world’s most loved and most vicious of ballads, The Threepenny Opera graced Wits’s stages last week, in a student production under the directorial hand of Fiona Ramsay, who teaches them. It sizzles and hisses, it tosses decorum to the wind and remains a fabulous opportunity for young wannabe musical theatre professions to cut their student teeth on.
As you enter the theatre, you’re struck by the elegant simplicity of a set that is at once bland and bold. The chequered floors and the closed baby grand piano form a wise and satirical counterpoint to this story of crude corruption, poverty and sassiness that rips the polished values of classical opera from the top down. Penned by Bertolt Brecht and first performed in 1928, the work is rollicking and rude, lending itself to an extrapolation on 1930s values as much as it is relevant today. Costume-wise, something similar happens too, with the spats and bustiers, black lipstick all round, the shweshwe get-ups and the implicit sense of style, which bleeds relentlessly and seamlessly from a Brechtian era all the way through to Johannesburg in 2019.
And then Chloe Wittstock presents herself in the role of the inimitable Mrs Peachum. This young performer has the presence of a grand old prostitute in some of Otto Dix’s pre war paintings. She’s gruff, she’s big, she’s got room in that cleavage for a whole bottle of whisky and she’s completely unapologetic and is not taking any prisoners. Fantastically cast in this role, she’s all that Brecht could have dreamed up in her stage presence, and just as she sits on the corner of the set at a delicate round table, helping herself to a swig from a small bottle, so does she encapsulate all that this work is about, even if she could benefit from more work in the vocal department.
Indeed, while much of the cast is very niftily inserted into their respective characters, not all of the performances are up to scratch, and many a young vocalist fights a losing battle against the piano, which sees lyrics crumbling and falling into incoherence or inaudibility. It’s a great pity and makes you yearn for the days when students at this university were able to specialise in musical theatre as an elective.
That said, and while the male cast members are generally not as strong or as convincing as their female counterparts, the character of Polly Peachum and the terrifying Pirate Jenny, played by Vuyo Majeke, Buntu Petse, Nolitha Radebe and Abby Molz in the first and second halves, let rip, however: vocally, in terms of presence and guts. These are young women you should be looking out for on professional stages next year.
The work rapidly takes on its own ad-libbed momentum, particularly in the second half and the student performers ooze with the sense of rule-breaking possibility central to the political anger of the piece. While there are several flaws in the production, including an inconsistent and illegible use of surtitles, as a whole, it sings with contagious enthusiasm.
- The Threepenny Opera is written by Bertolt Brecht and directed by Fiona Ramsay and Kashifa Sithole. Adapted from the Marc Blitzstein version, it features creative input by Kurt Weill (music), Clint Lesch (musical direction), Megan Martell and Paige Westergaard (set) and Hlomohang Law and Julian August (lighting) and is performed by Keaton Chetty, Alyssa Cohen, Martin Coetzee, Sasha Karlin, Wandakuhle Khoza, Rafeeqah Lachporia, Palesa Legodi, Sicelo Mabasa, Keitumetsi Mbatha, Vuyo Majeke, Amahle Mathe, Naledi Modipa, Zipho Mokoena, Abby Molz, James Netherlands, Buntu Petse, Nolitha Radebe, Michaela Tucker, Chloe Wittstock and Ziya Xulu, with Clint Lesch on piano, and performed at the Wits Main Theatre, Wits University campus until May 12.