The Theatreguide.London Review
Rise of Arturo Ui
Donmar Theatre Spring 2017
An unusually dark and serious take on Brecht's satire of Hitler finds new kinds of menace in the story, though at the cost of some of the comic parody. It is ultimately a very close call as to whether what's gained makes up for what's lost.
In the spirit of Chaplin's Great Dictator, Brecht approaches the rise of Hitler through broad, near-cartoonish parody. His villain is a gangster in a mythical Chicago, and the unsubtle tone is quickly established by translating the rise of the Nazis into Ui's muscling in on the wholesale cauliflower cartel and using it as a front for a protection racket targeting grocery stores.
(A chronology in the Donmar programme identifies the point-by-point parallels to Hitler's rise, which Brecht's original audience would have spotted and enjoyed without help.)
Bruce Norris's new adaptation and Simon Evans's direction somewhat play down the broader slapstick elements in the text, opting for a quietly menacing tone more akin to The Godfather than The Great Dictator. They're helped considerably by Lenny Henry's physical presence and magnetism as a calmly brooding Arturo.
Of course Henry has the experienced comedian's ability and sense of timing to toss away the occasional comic line to best effect, without having to push too hard. But he also has the gravity and stillness to imply power and menace through the smallest gestures or shifts in vocal tone.
It's an Ui that even experienced Brechtians will not have seen before, but it's there at a cost.
Brecht imagined Ui as comically crude and thuggish, almost stumbling accidentally into power. And while that has often tempted actors and directors to play him as a slapstick cartoon character, it is clear that some broad physical comedy was wanted, and is all-but-absent here.
The scene, for example, in which Ui goes to a faded Shakespearean actor for lessons in speech and posture goes by almost unnoticed, and the (generally offstage) violence – for a while it seems that every time someone leaves the stage there's the immediate sound of a gunshot – lacks the intended naughty delight.
By the second act it is very noticeable that there are hardly any laughs at all, as what parody remains is reduced to the subtlety of almost-believable realism. The menace of this Arturo Ui is closer to that of Michael Corleone than to the wild man of other productions or, for that matter, to Hitler.
Setting the play in a cabaret, with some of the audience at ringside tables, allows for some modest interludes commenting on the action in the mode of the films of Cabaret and Chicago. And it also facilitates some direct audience interaction including dragging some non-volunteers onstage to be part of the action.
Bruce Norris's adaptation has a thoroughly contemporary tone – by which I mean it is liberally seasoned with a gangster's limited repertoire of obscenities – and is at its wittiest when it slides unobtrusively into rhymed couplets and the near-rhymes of rap (and palpably loses energy when it lapses back into plain prose). Interpolated references to Trump and Brexit get easy laughs.
The episodic script and Lenny Henry's dominating presence leave little opportunity for other cast members to make much impression. But Tom Edden sets and sustains the tone as an ironic narrator figure, Michael Pennington is appropriately touching as the Hindenburg figure, a basically honest man totally out of his depth among the crooks, and Justine Mitchell holds her own in the double roles of a trial attorney and the wife/widow of one of Ui's foes.
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