An operatic satire on consumerism. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is slick and energetic – but unsuited to the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House is a fundamentally unsuitable space for its otherwise impressive production of the satire on capitalism, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Welcome to the city of Mahagonny, where eating, drinking, fighting and fucking are all not just permitted, but actively encouraged, where pleasure stands on every street corner and there’s no crime more despicable than not paying your bill.

It’s a bold move by the Royal Opera House to stage their first ever production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s almost-opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – an unblinking satire on capitalism with a history of contemporary failure. Thanks to a production as slick as it is seamy, exaggerating rather than ignoring the work’s quirks and discontinuities, they have made something with all the energy, the invention of their recent Anna Nicole. Unlike Turnage’s Anna Nicole however, Weill’s score is a thing of bizarre beauty, giving back all it receives in emotional and dramatic impetus.

Director John Fulljames takes Brecht’s updated parable of Sodom and Gommorah and plays on 21st-century fears and taboos. Act I takes place almost entirely in the back of a lorry, travelling along Lynch-esque highways crammed full of faceless folk hoping for a better life. These are scenes we recognise from news footage from Calais, Syria, Somalia, resonant in their very banality and ugliness. Confining the action so dramatically isn’t without its issues, but the pay-off comes in spectacular style as the curtain rises on Act II and Es Devlin’s towering shanty-town of shipping containers – a primary-coloured Lego-style city of commerce.

Working in tandem with Finn Ross’s video projections, Fulljames and Devlin create a relentless, neon world, where anything that stands still long enough becomes an advertising hoarding. It’s a theme wittily extended beyond the operatic frame, with slogans and offers (droll, cynical) projected all round the opera house, emblazoned on ushers’ t-shirts. Everything here is for sale, if only you have the price – a message the chafes deliciously with the plush interiors of this most expensive cultural institution.

With plush interiors come plush voices. The old Weill dilemma places the music out of reach of many cabaret-style performers but also confounds opera singers with its demands. The result is generally an uneasy compromise, as is the case here. Mezzos Christine Rice and Anne Sofie von Otter (spotless sopranos have no place in this grimy, life-worn milieu) tackle the roles of prostitute Jenny and Leocadia Begbick with tremendous gusto. Rice is the more successful, her voice growing into a voluptuous loveliness more indecently sensual than any of the onstage goings-on, delivering the famous Alabama Song with truculent poise. Von Otter struggles with the amplification, never quite finding her vocal groove.

Peter Hoare relishes the character role of Fatty, while Willard White – though often wayward in his tuning – packs crates of personality into gangster Trinity Moses. But the evening belong to Kurt Streit’s Jimmy, who gamely negotiates Weill’s stratospheric lines with musicality and a certain fragility that comes into its own in the closing scenes.

These are perhaps the only moment where this all-embracing show overreaches. By including the “God came to Mahagonny” episode (neatly reworked here as a televised execution, complete with puppet theatre-style crucifixion), a tidy parable risks toppling over into a sermon – an addition that tries both patience and contemporary tastes this late in the action.

Good as it is, there’s nothing about this show that wouldn’t be better in a smaller space. Fulljames has argued that Brecht and Weill always intended this work for the opera house, for operatic voices, but not all opera houses are created equal. The Royal Opera House is a barn, and fundamentally unsuited to this kind of dialogic theatre that quite literally turns the camera on its audience. This action needs to get up close and personal if its groping, grasping fingers are really going to reach their marks.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is on at the Royal Opera House, 7.30pm Tuesday 10 March - 4 April 2015


Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.