I think I am not unusual in saying that I live for familiar connections, whether that is sharing stories of first heartbreak or simply a mutual love of the Cornish sea. It is what brings people together. With that in mind, I was surprised to find myself at the National Theatre’s (NT) ‘The Threepenny Opera’ with that same feeling. With songs which begin ‘What a twat!’, a cast that included scantily-clad prostitutes, obvious theatrical make-up, dancing troops and deadly gangs, this darkly comic twentieth-century musical could not be further from reality. Comparatively, NT’s production of ‘Sunset at the Villa Thalia’ is a bittersweet tale of two couples’ retreat to Greece in the 1960s. Full of marital dispute, artistic discussion and political questioning, this show is perhaps, a little closer to home.
However, my aim is not to critique these shows. I simply wish to question the audience’s preference, whether they wish to relate to the action or if they simply hope to observe something far in subject from their daily lives. On the surface, the melodrama of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ is alluring in its display of another world. In fact, the power of literature, both the written and the spoken word, achieves a similar effect in its ability to transport us away from our present surroundings.
The dingy brothel scenes and cackling beggars are a snapshot of a poverty-stricken London society, far away from daily life in Durham. It is not just the threadbare corsets and women begging for casual intimacy, but a deeper layer that is revealed, of the fear of individuals involved in such a world. This imaginative quality is evocative in its poignancy as the physical masks of the characters, such as Peachum’s heavy make-up, hint at something bleaker under the surface. That is not to say that ‘Sunset at the Villa Thalia’ does not have this quality, but rather that it is at face value. In other words, the audience is not forced to exist outside of their comfort zone. That is why Pinter’s work in the mid-twentieth century was so popular in that it combined elements from the genres of both plays, by showing a realistic setting covering a far darker obscurity.
Perhaps, ‘The Threepenny Opera’ is more thematically familiar than we think. The love-hate relationship between Macheath and Polly is multi-layered and the corruption of the police force is something still prevalent today. Although the constant hilarity and crude nature of the characters mask this, it is clear that the themes are similar in content to that of ‘Sunset at the Villa Thalia’. Both address discord between man and wife, extra-marital relationships and forceful personalities. The question is: do we prefer a theatrical mask or simply the raw reality? Which challenges us more? Our minds are perhaps lulled into watching the simple story of ‘Villa Thalia’ in which Charlotte and Theo who, like the majority of married couples, are looking for a source of peace. In this generation of hyper-reality and innovation, are we not bored?
In truth, surprisingly, I found myself enjoying the simplicity of this story and its lack of pretence. The scenes of children swimming in the sea, Greek dancing and moonlit dinners were calming. Although it did not use dramatic set changes and complex lighting, its normality was relatable. I was not forced into questioning deeper subjects. I was allowed to enjoy a kitchen drama. I was entertained, if relatively unchallenged.
Therefore, it is evident that the unrealistic and the realistic can both be appreciated for different reasons. With the speed and pressure of daily life, a reflection and an exaggeration are equally important in self-understanding. My advice is that, with the flurry of student plays emerging this term, do not be put off by something wildly unfamiliar. You may find that it’s more relatable than you think.
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Image credit: National Theatre