No one has ever accused the Germans of being too funny, so it won’t come as a surprise that Brecht’s epic play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, is serious theatre. Alistair Beaton has created a new version of George Tabori’s translation that while keeping the opening prologue, which provides a short direct introduction of the major characters and an outline of the plot, he eschews the scene projections, which usually provide some useful bearings to the audience.
Brecht wrote the play in three short weeks in 1941 while in exile in Finland awaiting his US visa. He meant the play as an allegorical satire of the ascension of Adolf Hitler. Ui is a hunched over, oily, small time crook who wants to join the big league, a Capone wanabe if you want. The play is set in Chicago circa 1930 where Ui manipulates, extorts and kills his way to the top of the protection racket of the cauliflower trade. His ambition has no limit and once the kingpin in his city, he decides that taking over neighbouring Cicero would be a very good thing indeed.
What is certain is that Brecht could write. His dialogue is clever and beautifully cadenced. The rhythms of the sentences are particularly effective as he borrows from Shakespeare to weave a story of cunning and brutality. We are constantly reminded of the Bard with evocations of Mark Anthony, Richard III and Macbeth. It’s clever stuff indeed but I couldn’t help thinking that some cuts could have been made to the text. I won’t lie to you, it is not easy theatre but it if you are in the mood to see something serious then this packs plenty of punch.
The play comes to us via the Chichester Festival Theatre where Jonathan Church has once again directed a fantastic production that delivers a memorable Ui in Henry Goodman. Goodman is perfect as he transforms from a cockroach of a man, a man frightened by his own shadow, into the eponymous impersonation of evil itself. The best scene is an “electrocution” class in which a washed-out British actor gives Ui a lesson in elocution and deportment. By the end, Ui has mastered the goose step and we are reminded of Hitler’s public speaking ability when he recites Mark Antony’s famous forum speech from Julius Caesar.
Brecht’s play takes all its characters and situations in the real life events surrounding the rise of the Third Reich. So, Ui’s henchmen are actually Goering, Goebbels and Röhm, the warehouse fire is the burning of the Reichstag, the fate of the town of Cicero stands for the Anschluss in Austria and so on. You get the picture. The message is clear enough. It is Brecht after all.
Goodman is extraordinary as he metamorphoses into Hitler in all but name. While the other members of the cast deliver great performances as well. But it is Goodman’s night. Simon Higlett’s sets are beautiful recreations of the 30s gangster world.
Bertolt Brecht invented epic theatre because he wanted his audience to disengage emotionally from the characters and instead force rational self-perception. Whether he achieves this in this current West End production comes down to the last few minutes of the play when, with chilling directness, Ui is unmasked and Goodman, addressing us directly, reminds us that “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Sad but true if you read the papers. A last reminder that Hitler or any other modern authoritarian despot could and should be stopped at some point in their ascent. It is resistible.