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.