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THE THREEPENNY OPERA (article first published : 2004-09-12)

Two productions written by Bertolt Brecht – one a drama and one a musical - within the space of just over 24 hours is not something to be sneezed at!

It is to the credit of the drama departments of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Durban and the Durban Institute of Technology (DIT) that both student productions were of a high enough standard to make the surfeit of Brecht an acceptable one.

Last night I attended the UKZN production at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre of The Good Person of Setzuan (review on the artSMart Drama pages) and tonight the venue was The Courtyard for the DIT production of Marc Blitzstein’s English adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera.

Director Debbie Lütge has taken the year 1928 as one of her main references. This was when The Threepenny Opera was first mounted, a time when a strong impact was being made on the entertainment industry by black and white cinema. Wendy Henstock’s costume designs and impressive set stay within these colour boundaries. The set takes up a considerable amount of space and I commend all involved for the smooth moving of sets and props. I would be happier, though, if the railings/prison bars were a little more secure! Tina le Roux’s lighting is very effective with only the scene in the brothel being underlit.

The cast numbers around 50 and the skillful deployment of the beggars creates the impression of a seething mass of people in the streets and the prison. David Gouldie’s distinct choreographic input has raised this production above the DIT norm.

The Threepenny Opera deals with gangland corruption and crime – subjects uncomfortably close to our daily lives these days. Our anti-hero is MacHeath (Mack the Knife), a consistently good performance by Siyabonga Radebe. He is strongly supported by his gang: Siyabonga Victor Ndawo, Sandile Makhoba, Menzi Biyela (who alternates in the lead role), and Thabani Zuma. Playing his new and innocent ladylove, Polly Peachum, is attractive Slindile Msomi (alternating with Mandisa Ngcobo). Carrying his child is Lucy Brown played with a good energy by Lisa Venediger. Lucy is – conveniently for MacHeath - the daughter of the Commissioner of Police, a role from which Sibusiso Mbatha extracted much humour.

Other notable performers were Polly Peachum’s parents, played with suitable gruesome intent by Tommy Kyd and Nondumiso Mfeka, as well as the imposing Snenhlanhla Mkhize who took the part of Jenny, the head of the brothel. As the Street Singer, Thomas Mpoeleng began the show rather nervously but acquitted himself in the final rendering of the well-known song, Mac The Knife. I also liked the stuttering Filch played by Enkosi Lutseke.

My main problem with this production is that there is too much “business” (side scenes happening away from the song or dialogue of the moment). While “business” should be encouraged from the rest of the cast, it must be kept strictly low key otherwise it pulls focus and the audience is distracted from the main point of attention.

After the excellent articulation of the Oedipus Rex cast, I had high hopes of this one but was sadly disappointed with only a handful of the principal performers having sufficiently clear diction to be understandable. I grant that an effort to speak with a Cockney accent may have contributed to the problem but that’s no excuse for inattention to consonants. Please get it right, students. Your capacity to work in the local or international entertainment industry in the future - be it on stage, tv or film - depends on your ability to speak good English.

All said, the show is a major undertaking for DIT and is well worth seeing.

The Threepenny Opera runs at the Courtyard Theatre in Mansfield Road until September 18 at 19h00 with a matinee at 14h00 on September 18. Tickets R30 (R15 students). Book through Computicket on 011-340 8000 or www.computicket.com – Caroline Smart




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