The Theatreguide.London Review
Rise of Arturo Ui
Duchess Theatre Autumn 2013
If you didn't know that Bertold Brecht's 1941 black comedy, here in a production transferred from Chichester, was a combination satire and warning about Hitler, the first appearance of Henry Goodman with funny haircut and moustache would make it clear.
Brecht's portrait is of Hitler as an inept and cowardly minor Chicago gangster who rises to control of the city through sheer determination and bloodthirstiness, becoming somewhat less comical in the process.
It's part of the playwright's comic invention that it's all about cauliflowers, the corrupt vegetable wholesalers of Chicago luring one of the most respected of city fathers into fronting for them as they rob the civic purse, and Ui using his knowledge of this to blackmail the same elder statesman into giving him respectability as his gang taxes all the city's grocers for their 'protection' services.
For those in the know, there are direct parallels between Arturo's misdeeds on his way to power and Hitler's, characters in the play who stand for Hindenburg, Göbbels and others, and events that correspond to the Reichstag fire and other milestones in Hitler's rise.
But you don't really need to spot the details to get the general picture – a very little man, not taken seriously because he and his ambitions are so ridiculous, rises to the top almost before anybody realises by exploiting, betraying or just killing off anyone in his way.
And all this makes for very entertaining theatre, the nearly three hours of the play passing more quickly and enjoyably than many shorter but less inventive dramas.
Part of the fun lies in the sheer audacity of Ui's villainy, which would recall Shakespeare's Richard III even if Brecht did not overtly and delightedly point up the parallels. And much must lie in the central actor, who has to be able and willing to go over the top in both clowning and chilling menace.
Stand forth Henry Goodman, giving the performance of the year, and prepare your shelves for the string of trophies that will undoubtedly be yours come awards time.
Goodman spends the first half of the play as a near-cartoon figure, like one of the grotesque villains from the old Dick Tracy comic strips. He rivals Lee Evans or Jim Carrey as physical clown, never more so than in the hilarious scene in which Ui is coached by a has-been Shakespearean actor in how to speak and move more impressively than his native Brooklyn accent and Uraih Heep squirming.
And as the character gains power and confidence Goodman fully brings out the darker and truly intimidating energy of the natural despot totally unhindered by morality.
Much credit to director Jonathan Church for guiding his star to this brilliant performance and for establishing and sustaining the music hall tone of the whole production.
It is not by any means a one-man show, and the slightly straighter playing of the supporting cast, notably William Gaunt as the co-opted dignitary and Michael Feast as Ui's most trigger-happy associate, helps create a world that is not quite as larger-than-life as Goodman's Arturo, but one in which he can believably exist.
Theatre veterans still speak with awe of a 1969 production of Arturo Ui starring Leonard Rossiter. Henry Goodman's performance is one you will tell your grandchildren about.
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