Thursday, 3 October 2013

Theatre review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Probably the last of the major Brecht works I hadn't yet seen, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is the latest of Jonathan Church's West End transfers from Chichester. The satire on the rise of the Nazis recasts Hitler as Arturo Ui (Henry Goodman,) a ludicrous small-time gangster in Depression-era Chicago. He's dismissed by all as an insignificant fool but when a cauliflower cartel corrupts the respected Father of the City, Dogsborough (William Gaunt,) it opens up an opportunity for Ui. Stumbling onto a plot to misappropriate funds he blackmails Dogsborough into letting him set up a cauliflower protection racket. Soon Ui and his henchmen convert fear and violence into political power as well, and while the body count rises in Chicago, Arturo has his eye on neighbouring towns and their greengrocers.

Brecht structured Ui's rise to power to directly reflect specific incidents in that of Hitler, although Church's production does away with captions making the parallels explicit. It's probably for the best as, being Brecht, the metaphor is hardly subtle even without them, plus it allows for the story to be, as intended, more of a warning against repeating history than a simple retelling of it.

Arturo Ui is unusually linear by the playwright's standards, and being from Chichester the production is a fairly straightforward one, that has a bit of trouble establishing the black comic tone. Instead the mood tends to jump quite abruptly between a straight gangster epic (albeit with a vegetable-based angle) and a slaptick comedy of an inept mob boss. The ineptitude is of course the point, the "resistible" part of his rise being the circumstances and actions of those around him who allow him to go from bumbling wannabe to fully-fledged monster.

Goodman really gets to sink his teeth into the role, managing somehow to make the huge character changes required make sense. He tracks Ui from the slapstick clown who provides a lot of physical comedy in the first act, through his employment of an actor (Keith Baxter) to teach him how to make speeches. In keeping with the speech from Julius Caesar he rehearses with, his story starts to take on a Shakespearean tone, echoed in George Tabori's verse translation, which Alistair Beaton has revised for this production. Although if Ui sees himself as a Mark Antony type, he's really more of a Richard III.

Although using Tabori's translation comes into its own after the interval, I did wonder if a fresher version might have been helpful before it, the rather stilted verse meaning the production lacks a comic edge that makes the lurches into very silly physical comedy seem even more extreme. Of course if a show can survive that kind of contradiction it's one that uses slapstick to build to horror. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is ultimately no subtler than its title but it gets a solid production here with a stellar lead performance.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht in a version by George Tabori and Alistair Beaton is booking until the 7th of December at the Duchess Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

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