A musical revolution sweeps through the New Wolsey
- Credit: Patrick Baldwin
As audiences head towards the New Wolsey, they may be greeted with a scene that is perhaps a little different. The Ipswich theatre may appear to be subtly changed.
Buskers may be performing outside the theatre. They may look a little rough and ready.
Protest banners decorate the foyer and the bar area. The theatre looks no less inviting but it seems somewhat transformed..
This is exactly the feeling that artistic director Peter Rowe is looking for. The performance starts as the audience heads into the theatre.
The play is a dazzling new adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera with a score by Kurt Weill and this version is being told through the prism of the Occupy protest movement.
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The Threepenny Opera is the New Wolsey’s big musical and centrepiece for the spring season. It’s the show that gave us the dark-edged jazz standard The Ballad of Mack The Knife that became a huge hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin.
It’s a show that Peter knows very well and has decided to create, what he describes as, an immersive experience.
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The set, production design and spirit of the show spread out from the stage and envelop the entire theatre.
Peter describes the show as being very much a play for today. “I love it as a piece. I think the music is absolutely fantastic, it’s very strong and I just love the vibe of the show. It’s completely instinctive and anarchic and these are very apt times to put on this kind of show. It’s very much a show for today’s Britain.
“I have done it a couple of times – the last being a touring unit for Theatre Clwyd. That was a company of about 14. The one before that was with the Clwyd youth theatre, who were all lined up to do The Beggar’s Opera when their director dropped out. They asked me to come and take over and I said I will if we do Threepenny Opera rather than Beggar’s Opera and so we changed horses and did that.”
The inspiration for this latest version of the show has been drawn from the news headlines. Peter said that he wanted to capture a sense of contemporary Britain even though the events depicted on stage are set a few years in the future.
“The opening lines of the play, the narrator says: ‘An opera for beggars, conceived with the magnificence that only beggars can imagine and an economy that only beggars can afford.’ That, for me, is the key to the whole piece. That’s what we are using as our frame for the show.
“What we are planning to do is set up a group of contemporary outcasts – so they might be members of Uncut or Occupy or they maybe homeless or unemployed or members of Anonymous, but they have taken over the theatre to stage The Threepenny Opera. There will be banners outside, there will be banners in the auditorium… so it should feel as if the theatre has been taken over by this anarchistic group. It should feel like an Occupy protest. They create a world where no-one can be believed, no-one can be trusted, everybody is corrupt, everybody betrays everybody else – life’s a bitch and then you die – in the words of the song from the show.”
The show, which is a massive undertaking, is being staged in partnership with Graeae Theatre Company.
The New Wolsey teamed up with Graeae two years ago to stage a hugely successful production of Reasons To Be Cheerful, a musical based around the music of Ian Dury. The show started life at the New Wolsey before embarking on a national tour and ending its run as part of the Paralympic opening ceremony.
This collaboration sees Peter co-directing the show with Graeae’s Jenny Sealey and relishing the opportunity to stage a musical on a scale rarely seen in regional theatre.
The actor-musician show features a cast of 19 with an added couple of extras lending a hand in some of the larger scenes.
Among the familiar faces in the cast will be CiCi Howells, who made a huge impression as Taffeta the Cat in Dick Whittington, this year’s rock’n’roll panto, along with Sophie Byrne and Natasha Lewis who appeared in Our House, last year’s big musical.
From the Reasons To Be Cheerful cast John Kelly and Garry Robson are also returning.
Peter said that audiences should not be put off by the fact that the script is by German playwright Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill. “We want to make it exciting and accessible to everyone. I think the danger is when you say Brecht, people tend to assume that the subject matter will be really heavy, it’s going to be full of weighty themes and not much fun but Threepenny Opera is an awful lot of fun.
“It is full of gallows humour and provides a cynical look at the way that the world actually works from the bottom up. The show is set in a recycling clothes warehouse where Peachum is kitting out beggars and recycling their existing clothes. The whole feel of the show comes from that environment. Also the company is in control of everything. They are the ones moving things about. They are setting up the scenes. We are always aware of this ensemble who then play different characters in Threepenny Opera.
“Also the characters are very real. There is someone for everyone to relate to. People watching the show will latch onto a character and say: ‘That’s me’. People will recognise themselves.
“The play has that immersive feel. The story is based around a coronation, so we’re saying this is the coronation of King Charles III in a few years time. So the events take place slightly in the future.
“And since Macheath is about to be hanged at the end one can presume that capital punishment has been reinstated.
“I think that because Garry, who plays Mr Peachum, who is sending his beggars out on the streets to fleece people, is in a wheelchair, that will give the piece some extra edge. It will have the same spirit as Reasons To Be Cheerful and the same motley crew on stage and that same sense of experiencing an event.”
CiCi Howells, who plays Polly Peachum, said that she could see the show had exactly the right spirit to attract a younger audience to the theatre. She loves the defiant atmosphere that the show exudes. “It should be good getting a different audience, a younger audience, to the theatre. I think it speaks to people. The thing I remembered when I first heard the music was that although you couldn’t instantly go away singing it – while you were in the theatre it really made you listen.”
Peter added: “The songs in the show aren’t traditional musical theatre songs – they are comments on the action or members of the ensemble speaking directly to us in the audience about the way the world works – or how they see it.”
He said that the collaboration with Graeae had worked exceptionally well and the integration of abled bodies and disabled actors into the show had given it a unique and compelling spirit.
It has a rebelliousness about it – a devil-may-care attitude that is completely infectious – which should sweep up audiences and carry them along.
Talking to him, it is clear that Peter not only really loves the show but is excited by the possibilities created by the fact that the show was coming off the stage and the look and feel of the production was being stamped throughout the theatre.
“It doesn’t just sit on the stage. It bleeds into the auditorium, out into the bar and foyer. The show has sense of heightened reality which should be visible even as audiences approach the theatre.
“It is a show for our times. It’s a show where the look and sound of the piece combines to create such a powerful world that it can reach out and embrace the whole theatre.”
The Threepenny Opera will be at the New Wolsey Theatre from March 12-22.