Three years ago, just before Britain’s momentous referendum on EU membership, I made my usual weekly journey to Glasgow to catch the latest Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime show, and found myself transported back to another great turning-point in European history. In Morag Fullarton’s new play with songs, the year was 1928, and the city was Berlin. A group of artists had gathered to put on a show, but rehearsals were proving chaotic, with only the writer – the Marxist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht – showing any confidence that a show would finally emerge. The producer was demanding popular entertainment where Brecht was better known for political radicalism; the title kept changing, cast members kept leaving, and the composer Kurt Weill and his wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, were confused to the point of despair.
Yet the show that finally emerged from this chaotic process was The Threepenny Opera, loosely based on John Gay’s 18th-century English Beggar’s Opera, and probably the greatest play Brecht and Weill ever wrote together. During a formative late-1980s visit to the Berliner Ensemble, the company Brecht founded in East Berlin after the Second World War, Fullarton – then director of the Ayr-based Borderline Company, and now joint artistic director at A Play, A Pie And A Pint – first had the idea that the process of making The Threepenny Opera would itself make a great subject for a show; and although Fullarton’s busy career in theatre and television intervened, when she set out in 2016 to create a Play, Pie And Pint summer mini-musical, the idea returned in full force, not least because she had just heard a radio programme about the life of Kurt Gerron, the remarkable actor and singer who starred as the narrator in that 1928 production.
“It was as if a whole series of inspirations came together at that point,” she says. “There was that old visit to the Berliner Ensemble, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was the story of Gerron, which I hadn’t heard before. And then, in the background, there was the intense political debate about our future in the European Union, which inevitably raises all sorts of echoes of recent European history. So it just seemed like the right moment finally to make this show.”
The result was Fullarton’s Mack The Knife, which opened in June 2016 with Jimmy Chisholm in the role of Gerron, a brilliant performer who – while all his friends were fleeing the rising tide of Nazism in Germany – simply could not take the threat seriously, and who, legend has it, was finally forced by guards to sing his great 1928 hit, the Ballad of Mack The Knife, as he walked towards the gas chambers at Auschwitz. And now, Mack The Knife is being revived in Glasgow and Edinburgh as part of A Play, A Pie And A Pint’s hugely successful year-long celebration of its 500th show, which has involved 20 revivals of outstanding PPP shows, many of them chosen by audience members.
“Reviving this show at this moment has been a fascinating experience,” says Fullarton, who has now cast leading Scottish actor Keith Fleming as Gerron. “It just seems to grow more timely and intense by the hour. I’ve been able to do some work on the gear-shift that happens in the show, as we move from what’s really a very funny story about brilliant people creating theatre in terrible conditions, to something much darker and more tragic; and I’m looking forward to seeing what audiences will make of it.”
Mack The Knife is set to play its part in what has been A Play, A Pie And A Pint’s most successful year ever in terms of audience numbers, with box office income now 60 per cent higher than it was when Fullarton and co-artistic director April Chamberlain took over, in spring 2016. “The job was initially supposed to be a one-year job-share,” Fullarton explains with laugh, “leaving us both free to do other projects, but so far it hasn’t really worked out like that – we’re still here, and both working almost full time.
“Meanwhile, though, things are pretty exciting here. It’s great to see packed audiences nearly every week, and what’s unexpected is that the popularity of the season of revivals seems to have had a spill-over effect, with even brand-new plays by unknown writers attracting bigger audiences than ever before. We also have our new relationship with BBC Scotland, who are broadcasting six of our plays on Sunday evenings during September and October. And for 2020, we’ll be straight back to the business of producing 33 brand new plays a year.
“Yes, money is tight, even after such a successful year; public funding is at a standstill, costs keep rising, and we’re now trying to pay the proper rate for things we once used to accept for free. And always, there’s a frustration that no-one seems to be taking forward that tradition of popular musical theatre that was so powerful in Scotland in the 1980s, with Wildcat and 7:84 and Borderline; there’s a real gap there, that organisations like the National Theatre of Scotland should be thinking about filling – there’s certainly enough political anger around. But we’re already talking to writers like Rob Drummond, Morna Young, Stuart Hepburn, Meghan Tyler, and others you’ve never heard of yet, about plans for next year; and so long as the scripts keep coming, this seems like a great job to be doing, for a while yet.”
Mack the Knife is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, 16-21 September, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 24-28 September. The current BBC Scotland television series of Play, Pie And Pint dramas is showing every Sunday at 10pm