Brecht’s tale of Chicago gangsters running a protection racket holds up a deliberately ludicrous mirror to Hitler’s rise to power, offering a sobering look at how easy it for small acts of corruption and self-interest to feed a monster. Given the state of the world today, it feels almost churlish of Bruce Norris’s new adaptation to point this production so squarely at the Donald, making explicit over and over that Trump could be a contemporary Führer.
Arturo Ui, a small-time Chicago gangster on the up, is Brecht’s stand-in for Hitler, with the other gangsters representing Röhm, Goring, Himmler, and Goebbels. The parallels with the contemporary world are frighteningly obvious, but by focusing all the energy of the play on lampooning Trump, and Trump alone, it perhaps loses some heft; Norris’s script includes numerous verbatim quotes from POTUS, and at one point a huge banner descends, shrieking “Make our country great again”.
Although Trump’s power-hungry petulance is relevant, Lenny Henry’s Ui is an altogether more statesmanlike figure. Despite being prone to sudden rages, Henry is often frighteningly still, and portrays the move from small-time crook to city-wide protection racket kingpin horribly realistically. Simon Evans’ direction treads a fine line between hysteria and calm, anchored by Henry’s intimidating presence. A scene in which an actor (an enjoyably OTT Tom Edden) teaches Ui to walk, stand, sit and speak in a more charismatic way, ends with Ui testing out a Nazi salute. It’s not subtle, but that gesture is still a punch to the gut.
In fact, Henry is deeply disturbing as the play charts his rise, and at his best when he’s playing a character rather than lightly imitating Trump. Lucy Ellinson is a treat as Giri, a murderous underling with a penchant for wearing the hats of victims and a great line in maniacal laughter, and Gloria Obianyo shines in all of her smaller roles.
Peter McKintosh’s design has transformed the Donmar into a smokey, shadowy speakeasy, around which the audience sit, cabaret-style. Surprisingly, there’s a fair amount of audience participation, with people pulled from their seats to be corpses, patsies and back-up gangsters. Evans builds a clever air of complicity between gang and audience, pushing the comedy elements even as audience members carry cans of kerosene to burn down a warehouse as a warning. The ingenuity of this is driven home when the audience is asked to stand up to show their support for Ui, and almost everyone stands. The lone few dissenters are shepherded into the middle of the stage, and it makes for a deeply uncomfortable few minutes. Everyone likes to think they would have stood up to the Nazis.
It’s this moment that stops the play being pure entertainment, and reminds us that there’s a serious message underneath the clowning, songs and silliness. All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing, after all.
The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui is at the Donmar Warehouse until June 17th. For more details, click here.