Why age hasn’t wearied play of social injustice

Graeae Theatre Company perform The Threepenny Opera. Picture: Patrick Baldwin
Graeae Theatre Company perform The Threepenny Opera. Picture: Patrick Baldwin
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It’s one of the most influential works by one of Europe’s most important theatre makers. Nick Ahad spoke to Jenny Sealey, director of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

A play about the downtrodden, the dispossessed and how they remain underfoot has never been sadly more relevant.

As the gaps between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen, theatre makers, a socially-minded bunch at the best of times, are examining the disparities in our society in ever closer detail.

It makes the latest production to arrive at the Playhouse this week, a new version of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera by the country’s leading disabled theatre company Graeae, feel somehow inevitable.

Written by Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, the musical was debuted in their native Berlin in 1928, a time when theatre had an enormous power to rail against injustice. Brecht was furious long before the Angry Young Men came along in 1960s Britain. His plays demanded the audience sit up and take note of his polemics to such an extent that the word “Brechtian” was invented to describe a style of theatre that stared the audience in the eye.

The Threepenny Opera is an exploration of what happens to a society during hard times and how the less fortunate are viewed and treated. It all makes it a perfect musical to be staging now, according to co-director Jenny Sealey.

“We have set this production in 2014 so our set and costume design is of now and our gang tell of the times of trouble and strife through the show. They stage manage all scene changes, the captioning, the signing and the audio description. Nothing is hidden which is true to a Brechtian style in that it demands theatre makes a social comment,” she says.

“His theatre is for mavericks and the dispossessed and our motley cast and crew epitomise this world. The play is hugely relevant as government cuts mean people are living in desperate times, using food banks and struggling in whatever way they can for survival.

“It is about class struggle and corruption from those in authority and through the witty dialogue, translated by Robert David Macdonald the play is very funny and has some cracking one-liners.”

As well as being recognised as a pioneer with her work for Graeae, Sealey achieved renown when she was appointed the woman in charge of the opening ceremony for the London Paralympics.

Using the talents of Leeds-based actor and dancer Dave Toole, she created a ceremony that literally gave wings to a section of society that sometimes doesn’t even have a voice. The ambition of Sealey is well suited to a space like the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre.

“The London 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony was an extraordinary experience,” she says. “Having the opportunity to place deaf and disabled people at the heart of the narrative and on a world stage, being able to reclaim Spasticus Autisticus as our anthem and having 67,000 people signing and singing I Am What I Am were all moments in my life I will never ever forge.

“It was a huge learning curve and having a professional cast and 3,500 volunteers equally passionate about wanting to engage with human rights and challenge perceptions of possibilities has renewed Graeae’s determination to speak out against injustice, human rights and inequality.

“This has fuelled our ongoing determination to ensure deaf and disabled artists remain center stage forever more.The ceremony and the Paralympic Games were hugely successful and suddenly we were sexy and the ‘in thing’ but this has somewhat waned. That is why this production of The Threepenny Opera is as important as ever to remind people that we are part of the fabric of society and we aren’t going anywhere.”

The production uses a fully integrated cast of disabled and non-disabled actors and musicians, the first production to do so and tour to four of the UK’s major venues, which have come together to fund and create the piece. The only way New Wolsey, Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Graeae could have embarked on such a huge production was by getting into bed together and sharing an artistic and financial mission,” says Sealey. “It has been a mammoth task ensuring clean lines of communication and being on the same page. Each company does things differently but we have really learnt from each other and have plans to do something else. So watch this space.”

Taking John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, along with a few liberties, Brecht and Weill – with great difficulty – eventually created a musical that would continue to have much to say about society over a century later.

In a world where evil goes unpunished and lowly souls remain on the poverty line, London’s most notorious criminal Macheath has recently married Polly, the daughter of Jonathan Peachum, leader of the beggars. The story of jealousy and rivalry is often secondary in a production of a play that is never less than incendiary and seems always to have something to say about where we are as a society.

“At the time of making this show, members of the cast are campaigning relentlessly to stop the government from closing the Independent Living Fund and I am heading a campaign to stop changes and cuts to Access to Work’s provision of sign language interpreters hours which means I may not be able to do my job,” says Sealey.

“Deaf and disabled people are being stripped of their rights to live their lives with equality, quality and dignity. It is becoming scary and I look at my cast and think maybe they will not be able to work for Graeae in the years to come because access and the wherewithal to work has been denied.”

• The Threepenny Opera, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to May 10. Tickets 0113 213 700, www.wyp.org.uk