Thursday, 4 May 2017

Review The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui

A World War II play written when Bertolt Brecht fled to the US is still a potent analysis of dictatorship, but Peter Barker wonders if a new adaptation's jokey approach and Trump analogy lessens its impact. 

The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui
by Bertolt Brecht  

Market Forces 

Bertolt Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1941 during wartime exile from Germany in the United Sates. Last year, we had the National Theatre's take on Brecht and Kurt Weil's 1920s' musical critique of capitalism, The Threepenny Opera. 

Now, after a new wave of crowd-pleasing demagogues and fake news has crashed on the shores of Western democracies, director Simon Evans and adaptor Bruce Norris have turned again to Brecht in an attempt to drew their own analogy with our times.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui presents fascism as gangster-like capitalism, with Lenny Henry in the title role. The play’s premise is easy to understand: it’s an allegory of the rise of the 20th century’s not-so-great dictator.

Market trader Ui is Hitler who, using and destroying the corrupt Cauliflower Trust, takes control. Among his henchmen and victims are Ernesto Roma (Giles Terera)  representing Hitler's ally and then rival Ernst Röhm. Givola (Guy Rhys) is Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Betty Dullfeet (Justine Mitchell) is Engelbert Dollfuß, assassinated Austrian Chancellor,  and  deceitful, profiteering Trust chief Dogsborough (Michael Pennington) is the Prussian junker president, Paul von Hindenburg.

The play catalogues the rise of  Ui and asks the question -- what should we do to stop history repeating itself, once more, as tragedy?

In fact, this staging poses that question to the audience very directly. There is a great deal of audience participation, with members co-opted to play arsonists, those assassinated, a rigged jury, a dead body, a framed innocent and other victims.

There are genuinely horrible, as well as horribly funny, moments; as Henry’s Ui is coached on diction and stance by an actor (Tom Edden), it is chilling to see how Ui picks up the gestures and stance of the Berchtesgarden bully. It is not at all subtle. It is a screaming political allegory repeated again and again and again.

And that is how it should be, in my opinion. Not comfortable, but something resembling a physical assault by a bully armed with a cosh and a knuckleduster.

This production achieves that punch, to its credit. My only reservation is that this version of the play is a bit too much fun; it is almost too good-natured in places. Perhaps even, dare I say it, too English, needing more sourness and anger. The National’s Threepenny Opera last year had the same feeling about it -- it was too nice at times.

Henry as Ui leads the rest of the ensemble cast. He convinces at beginning as the slouching rough beast, who slyly takes a mile when barely an inch is offered and gives in return lies and violence. He also has bags of charisma.

The Donmar is transformed by Peter McKintosh’s intricate, detailed set into a Chicago speakeasy where the audience is seated on saloon chairs on all sides. It’s theatre in the round and a few chairs, benches and tables are used at various times for the different scenes.

Yet the production makes one serious mistake. It directly links Donald Trump and Hitler.

Many may see Trump as a liar, a bully, an incompetent, a misogynist, a racist, a narcissist, a demagogue, a chauvinist, a failed businessman, an evil spirit conjured up through media manipulation, a urophile  -- but he is not Hitler, and I don’t believe it aids public understanding of Trump to liken him to the Nazi dictator.

Perhaps there is a danger now that Trump has become too easy, and too often an inaccurate,  shorthand which in this case diverts attention from Brecht's bruising analysis of the circumstances which brought Hitler to power.

While not an unflawed production, this version of the Brechtian classic has an undoubtedly visceral Arturo Ui in Lenny Henry and merits a green light.


  1. Brilliant review! I would add something on the audience participation element: aspects of the different roles, and consequently, the expectations for going along within those roles' constraints really made me think about my own behaviour in the face of the rise of an UI-like figure. This dynamic will be different and maybe even unpredictable depending on the night. It would be interesting to hear an analysis from the actors/director, etc, on the responses over the course of the play's run.

  2. I agree. I saw the Donmar show this week and loved the staging and the acting but concluded that Bruce Norris lacks Brecht’s political acumen.

    Brecht’s genius was to portray Hitler as a Chicago gangster and so highlight how Hitler’s rise to power came through the use of political violence - the central feature of fascism. History may always repeat itself, 'the first time as tragedy and the second as farce', but Trump is no fascist.

    That said, I thought the audience engagement worked well, particularly at the end when those who remained seated (included me) became all too aware of how easy it is to remain passive. Incidentally did they change the way they did this in the course of the run? This week, audience members who opposed Ui had to stand up. Earlier reviews implied that those who supported him had to stand

    But for me the he ending was significantly weakened by the omission of the Brecht’s epilogue. How could they leave that out with its memorable last line.

    “If we could learn to look instead of gawking,
    We'd see the horror in the heart of farce,
    If only we could act instead of talking,
    We wouldn't always end up on our arse.
    This was the thing that nearly had us mastered;
    Don't yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!
    Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
    The bitch that bore him is on heat again.”

    1. Thanks for your comment Martin.

      I think trying to load Trump into this play was a mistake. You are right, Trump is no fascist. It's the theatrical flavour at the moment, and directors are to blame for being very unsubtle about it. I think audiences are intelligent enough to work out that two plus two is Trump and don't need teacher to complete the sum for them.