Video/gallery: Beggars take over Ipswich’s New Wolsey as Brecht classic gets modern twist

Milton Lopes and CiCi Howells as MacHeath and Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. Picture: Patri

Milton Lopes and CiCi Howells as MacHeath and Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. Picture: Patrick Baldwin - Credit: Patrick Baldwin

A comment on society through sharp dialogue and satirical songs, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera is still as funny as it is horrific 85 years on.

“Unfortunately it all still stands up in this economic climate where cuts are being made left right and centre - for example the Independent Living Fund will be scraped in 2015 with real damage to the lives of deaf and disabled people - and survival is a struggle,” says Jenny Sealey of Graeae, the UK’s foremost disabled-led theatre company, who is herself deaf.

A five-way co-production between the company, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Repertory Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, it uses integrated audio description and a combination of BSL interpretation and captioning to tell the story of a world corrupted told by those excluded from it.

The show, featuring a cast of disabled and non-disabled performers, is the first to play on major regional stages with such a large, gloriously motley crew who are the most incredibly talented actor musician, actor singers and actor signers says Jenny, co-directing with the New Wolsey’s Peter Rowe.

“I’ve always wanted to do this play and although Pete had done it before, he wanted to tackle it again because of the statement it makes about where are at in 2014. We joined forces with Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse to make it possible.”

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Peter, the New Wolsey’s artistic director, wanted to do a version where they create a company of contemporary “beggars” to tell the tale from their perspective.

“Jenny’s production of Reasons to be Cheerful seemed to have exactly the spirit The Threepenny Opera requires – defiant and irreverent, funny and fearless and set me thinking... What would it be like if we brought together the Graeae motley crew with the Wolsey actor-musicians.

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“Brecht’s own mash-up of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera has a brilliant, instinctive, cabaret flair. The team we are putting together to re-invent this musical for our times aims to recapture that heady mix of gallows humour, razor-sharp satire and up-front entertainment.”

No stranger to providing a global platform for deaf and disabled artists, Jenny - who co-directed the opening ceremony of The London 2012 Paralympic Games - said the biggest challenge with Threepenny Opera was casting, ensuring real diversity, equality and skill was represented on stage.

“We got there in the end and as a team they are supportive of each other, great fun to be with and unbelievably hard working. The whole process and integrated way of working has been new to many people as has the style of performance, but they came with their sleeves rolled up and ready to ‘go for it’.”

She feels this new production proves the UK is a world leader in promoting diversity in the arts.

“It’s because we have the Arts Council England which invests in inclusion and gives opportunity to those who would traditionally be marginalised. The UK is a multicultural society and it essential that the arts reflect this.”

The Threepenny Opera, featuring a score including well-known songs like Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny, runs at the New Wolsey to March 22. Watch my video chat with cast members CiCi Howells, Will Kenning and co-director Peter Rowe here. Read arts editor Andrew Clarke’s full interview with Peter Rowe and his review of the show online now.

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