Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company, 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny': Show Me the Money

An opera satirising opera goes to pained lengths in Lynne Parker's conflicted production. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Olympia Theatre
Jun 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23

My review of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill coming up after the jump ...

It's a question of where's the cash in Mahagonny - the fictional Western city in Brecht and Weill's 1930 opera. The three criminals who founded the urban paradise need to turn a profit, hence the influx of sharks and harpies. The price of whiskey is still dropping though, and the town is too tame according to restless lumberjack Jimmy. Trust a natural disaster to put life in perspective, as a miraculous escape from a hurricane inspires the city to declare freedom from fear.

"Do what you want" is the new order but not without certain limits. When Jimmy doesn't have the money to settle his bar tab, he's put on trial. The ruling: "In the whole human race there is no greater criminal than a man without money".

It's a question of where's the cash in Mohaganny? Infuriating then is Lynne Parker's staging for Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company's co-production, which refuses to push the depraved, the feckless, their money and their sex. Most energies have gone into the architectural reimagining of the venue, which places raised seating for the audience onstage. This severely restricts the performance space to downstage (to the backaches of those in the upper circles).

This Brechtian mirror reflects so that the audience never lose sight of itself, nor the fictitious reality they're watching, allowing them to interpret action critically rather than emotionally. The device consumes the production.

Kurt Weill's storming score, well-controlled by conductor David Brophy, infuses classical music with jazz and cabaret, making Mohaganny an operatic satire of conventional opera itself. It's this idea that Parker seems insistent to push: a tirade against consumer entertainment - and to pained lengths - altering the Victorian interiors of the Olympia theatre, sending her chorus members staggering to the stalls to sing. The direction is invested so heavily in form that attention to storytelling is truly ignored.

The singers' voices might just reach heaven. Claudia Boyle can let a note ring and Julian Hubbard sings from his gut. The realisations of these key roles are less formed; Boyle is far too pristine as prostitute Jenny and Hubbard's Jimmy is hardly a renegade. Too often it feels that the action isn't led by the performances or the direction in any compelling way.

If anything, Mahagonny has the worst of Parker's tendencies on display, mostly revolving around the primacy of music in her stagings. The score for Arthur O'Riordan's impossibly clever 2004 musical Improbable Frequency was a bewitching mix of cabaret and music hall but (based on the 2012 revival) the direction dragged, the pace was slow and didn't realise the movement styles of those genres in any considerable choreography. Similarly, her 2011 production of Peer Gynt was constrained by the rhythm of the verse that actors wandered unguided between beats. Music can be a powerful dramatic device but theatre isn't an aural form; it's visual, and in Parker's milieu there aren't compelling stage images to sustain that strength of sound.

While watching Brecht we should grimace at the banker fondling his purse, before being kicked in the teeth by a prostitute's heel. This is Mohaganny mired by an idea, concept crushing content. The only Brechtian action you'll take from it will be committed against spectators who got seats onstage, resenting their better view.

What did everybody else think?

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