The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

June 20, 2014

How you respond to The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny will depend on how you manage expectation. Rough Magic’s collaboration with Opera Theatre Company features a cast filled with rising Irish- or Irish based, opera singers, all decked out in the threads of an Oscar-nominated costume designer (Consolata Boyle). Collectively they’re working from a revolutionary book and score from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill(it was banned by the Nazi’s, don’t you know), and bring the performance out into the audience, dangling provocatively and leering from boxes, sprinting up the aisles and singing from every level of the auditorioum. Largely funded by a Sky Arts Bursary, the budget is publicised as having exceeded €400,000.

However the question asked by many people – audibly, after the performance I attended on Sunday night, was “where did it all go”.

Patti LuPone tells us how Mahoganny was founded in a classic 2007 production

The answer is on a 39-piece orchestra, housed in the stalls where paying punters once sat. For €75, audience members can now sit on the stage, while a third of the gods and the circle have also been sacrificed as playing space. This called for a team of award-winning architects to subtly redesign the venue to accommodate them, although to the untrained eye it just looks like they ripped a few seats out and placed them on the stage.

Three criminals, on the lam from the law, set up a city where anything goes, exploiting the desires of the workingman who wants to blow his hard-earned cash on a good time with no limitations. Like moths to a flame, it draws all sorts of unscrupulous characters, who loll in excess like pigs in mind-altering shit, before the money runs out and a head is called for.

There are parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah, the Weimar Republic and our very own Celtic Tiger, but it never feels relevant or even clear as to what director Lynne Parker is trying to do with this production, other than run through it from start to finish, with movement as an afterthought.

It doesn’t grip audiences or wow us with its scale, as its architectural moxie has gotten it into serious technical difficulties.

Any intricacies in the jazz laced score are lost due to the positioning of the instruments underneath a balcony that swallows what should be a stirring sound. The movement of the 22 singers around the venue is unsure and dramatically confused. Intent on immersing us in the action, it manages only to deflate the power of the spectacle and drain a sense of cohesiveness from our viewing experience.

I just couldn’t get my bearings when the chorus suddenly popped up in different points around the space, where they were supposed to be geographically or what they represented metaphorically. There has been some suggestion that the Mahagonny created here is a production of the play gone meta-theatrically awry. But that’s not clear. In fact there is no sense- in either the production design or in the performance, as to what Mahagonny is about, either in concept or as a place.

While the cast are fine singers, none- bar a sniveling John Molloy as Trinity Moses, posses any acting ability. I haven’t a clue what kind of people the lumberjack Jimmy and the prostitute Jenny are, as Julian Hubbard and Claudia Boyle who sing them remained removed from the emotions at all times, cutting off the personality of their respective parts. While Ann Marie Gibbons may have the right glint in her eye as the widow Begbick, but looses all authority when she opens her mouth to speak. Without characters to invest in, there’s nothing at stake and the whole performance becomes meaningless.

There are other basic problems that could have been straightened out had they had a preview performance. No matter where you sat, the positioning of the cast means that at least once in the evening we are stuck staring at the back of the performer’s heads for long periods. Or worse, are blocked by the surtitles, that infuriatingly only seem to work whenever Darragh Kelly, as the narrator, speaks, the only point where they are not needed. Sung through in English, there is a huge disparity in the projection and delivery of the cast which affects our connection to the story, our ability to hear and hence follow or invest in it.

As an Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny broke new ground, co-opting cabaret and jazz overtures into traditional operatic styles. Rough Magic rolls things back here, focusing solely on the latter. There’s no sense of sex or vulgar excess, of ambition, greed or gluttony in a production that was pleasant to listen to, hence emotionally threadbare. You just cant imagine the Nazis getting perturbed by anything that happens here.

It feels more like a concert than a dramatic spectacle, that performs the work of Weill and Brecht instead of interpreting them. Well sung and enjoyable from a musical perspective, the songs will stay with you for days. But as a piece of theatre, it lacks power and focus.


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