Reviews West End & Central Published 3 October 2013

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Duchess Theatre ⋄ 18th September - 7th December 2013

The great dictator.

Neil Dowden

Written in 1941, but not staged until two years after his death in 1958, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui shows Bertolt Brecht at his most accessible. This dark comedy set amongst 1930s Chicago mobsters is a satirical allegory of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the homeland the Marxist Brecht was forced to flee. Influenced by Warner Brothers gangster movies and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, not to mention references to Shakespeare’s Richard III, Macbeth and Julius Caesar, the play’s entertaining yet chilling message is done full justice via George Tabori’s translation revised by Alistair Beaton, in Jonathan Church’s excellent production, which has transferred from Chichester.

We follow the ascent of the titular protagonist from an ingratiating and cowardly small-time crook, whose tic-ridden absurdity everyone laughs at, to a ruthless major player in organised crime like Al Capone expanding his empire from Chicago to Cicero, Illinois. Blackmailing a corrupt local politician who has been bribed by a cauliflower cartel to secretly siphon them public money to help their business out in the flat Depression years, Ui and his gang muscle in on the racket by offering local store owners protection they can’t refuse. As intimidation turns to murder, there seems to be no one able, or willing, to stop this sociopath’s remorseless rise to power.

In Brecht’s prologue to this self-consciously theatrical show, the main characters are introduced by a sardonic, tuxedoed master of ceremonies (with Ui making quite an entrance by bursting through a wall-poster of Scarface), backed by a sleazy on-stage jazz band, before sauntering down designer Simon Higlett’s catwalk-like promenade which bisects the auditorium. Written largely in Shakespearean-style blank verse, Brecht maintains this knowing tone and arch humour throughout as he beguiles the audience like Ui does his victims but his intent is deadly serious: to warn of the danger of not taking seriously a wannabe dictator.

In fact, there are exact equivalents between the play’s characters and historical figures like Ernst Röhm and Hermann Göring, as there between its action and real-life events such as the Reichstag fire and Anschluss, but this production does not spell these out with placards or projections in epic theatre style, leaving the parallels implicit – after all Brecht’s warning was not intended to be confined to Hitler’s gang but to apply to any tin-pot tyrant on the make anywhere and anytime. As the epilogue states: ‘We may have stopped that bastard but the bitch that bore him is in heat again.’

Henry Goodman gives a virtuoso, highly physical performance as Ui, alternately ridiculous and menacing, charting the grotesque thug’s transformation from hunched creep to charismatic demagogue – a little man desperate for respect. Michael Feast impresses as his loyal lieutenant sacrificed without qualms, Joe McGann is the grinning heavy who collects the hats of those he has killed and William Gaunt brings gravitas to the crooked councillor afflicted by guilt. And Keith Baxter has a deliciously funny cameo as a hammy, has-been classical actor who coaches Ui in the art of public speaking and deportment, as we see him developing a goose step and raised-arm salute that are all too familiar.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Show Info


Directed by Jonathan Church

Cast includes Henry Goodman, Michael Feast, William Gaunt, Joe McGann, Keith Baxter, Mark Carlisle, Alex Giannini, Amanda Gordon, Charlie Hamblett, Lucas Hare, Hugh John, Richard Mark, Lizzy McInnerny, Peter Moreton, Steve Simmonds, Colin Stinton, David Sturzaker, Benny Young

Running Time 2 hours and 45 minutes.

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