The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

The Guardian, Michael Billington, 2nd May 2017

It is always good to see Lenny Henry on stage and he exudes massive authority as Brecht’s murderous racketeer in this parable about the rise of strikes me, however, that there is something a touch glib about the frequent invocations of Donald Trump in Bruce Norris’s new adaptation. While Simon Evans’s production and Peter McKintosh’s design successfully transform the Donmar into a sleazy speakeasy, the incorporation of audience members into the action also lends the play an air of communal jokiness.

Written in 1941, Brecht’s play does several things at once. It transforms German history into a gangster melodrama often with surprising exactness. Not only does Arturo stand in for Hitler but the white-haired Weimar president, Hindenburg, is turned into the corrupt City Hall boss, Dogsborough, and the Prussian landowning class here becomes the reactionary cauliflower trust. Brecht’s play also combines echoes of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator with a stream of Shakespearean references to Richard III and Macbeth. Above all, Brecht sets out to show that fascism is not an unstoppable force but a resistible extension of free-market capitalism.

Norris’s new version, however, never lets us forget the parallels with today. An announcer ironically denies any link between Brecht’s homicidal gangsters and “the leader of a certain nation”. Later the widow of the murdered Dullfeet denounces Arturo as “the very textbook definition of a sociopath” and, in case we miss the point, Arturo himself triumphantly proclaims: “I’m gonna make this country great again.” But, at numerous points, the comparison with Trump breaks down. Where Arturo brutally dispatches his enemies, Trump has bred an active opposition. Paul Krugman’s recent likening of Trump, in the New York Times, to a temperamental six-year-old child out of the Twilight Zone seems to me nearer the mark than the suggestion that he is a modern Adolf Hitler.

Evans’s production also appears torn between evoking the world of Chicago protection rackets and creating an interactive spectacle. Everything is done to give a flavour of period verisimilitude, down to the smoky songs and the use of crates of cauliflowers. But, while Brecht would have welcomed the idea of spectators sitting at tables with a drink, Evans overdoes the audience involvement. We laugh merrily at see our neighbours hauled on stage to play a corpse or a harassed trial-defendant rather than coolly assessing, as we should, the links between political extremism and economic decline.

Henry deserves praise, however, for accurately capturing Arturo’s transformation from a shambling klutz into a figure of authoritarian power. Even though I’ve seen the pivotal episode when Arturo takes lessons from a Shakespearean actor more sharply played, and Tom Edden as the thesp gives us too much uncured ham, the moment when Henry magisterially folds his arms across his chest in imitation of Hitler still provokes nervous laughter.

Michael Pennington lends Dogsborough the right mix of venality and vulnerability and there is strong support from Giles Terera as a razor-sharp Ernesto Roma and Justine Mitchell as Dullfeet’s defiant widow. But, while I understand the urge to give Brecht’s play a contemporary bite, it takes more than references to newspaper guys as envious “losers” and to cities overrun with immigrants to persuade me that Arturo Ui is a prefiguration of Donald Trump.

The Independent, Paul Taylor, 3rd May 2017

“Any suggestion of a correlation/Between the leader of a certain nation/And the homicidal gangster we depict/Is something that management must strictly disavow,” insists Tom Edden, brilliant as the flamboyantly high-pitched and campily candid Weimar-style announcer for the evening, showing is what he thinks of that scripted disclaimer by pretending to wipe his backside with it.

The insinuations are all double-edges. The prize-winning American dramatist, Bruce Norris, also has Donald Trump very much within his sights in his adaptation of this piece that Brecht wrote on the run in 1941 - a blackly farcical “gangster spectacle” that satirises Hitler’s rise to power by cutting him down to size as a ridiculous Chicago hoodlum whose ascent involves seizing control of the City’s greengrocery racket.

Brecht wanted to emphasise how, in its earlier stages, the climb to dictatorship by demagogue can be resisted. Hence the exceptional concentration in Simon Evans’s revival on the audience. He and designer Peter McKintosh have removed the venue’s fixed seating and replaced it with wooden tables and chairs, a dangling mic and an extra balcony at the back, transforming the Donmar Warehouse into a jazzy Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy.

The last time this sort of thing was done at this address, if memory serves, was for Sam Mendes’ production of Cabaret over 25 years ago which recast patrons as habitués of the Kit Cat Club. The connection is Germany in the 1930s. But the audience, though invited to dance, were essentially spectators in the Mendes’ show, whereas in the Brecht, the relationship is almost over-strenuously interactive. At the performance

Patrons are hauled up to participate, emphasising the bare-faced, desperately hand-to-mouth methods with which gangsters achieve their ends. At the performance I saw, a smart punter in tweed was manhandled around a dizzying succession of corrupt hearings, silent and loonily framed for a crime (the warehouse/Reichstag fire) that he could nor possibly have committed.

Lenny Henry gives a powerful, well-paced performance as Ui. He starts off a loping and sulky klutz, touchy that the press don’t write about him, and combining menaces with incompetence when he has to read out threats that he has written on the palm of his hand in a mobster’s idea of ornate English to the compromised old mayor (and Hindenberg parallel) Dogsborough.

Michael Pennington splendidly conveys the draining of moral authority from this silver-haired, self-sentimentalising figure. Tom Edden, excellent again as a drunken old ham actor, puts Ui, keen to be able to command a stage, through his paces. It’s during this tutorial that he ludicrously hits by chance on the Nazi salute and goose step.

There are some horribly well-handled episodes: the liquidation of his second-in-command Roma (a superb Giles Terera) amidst recriminations in near pitch-darkness seems to merge Rigoletto and The Godfather. If the concluding scenes never get as chilling as they might, it’s possibly because the Third Reich parallels (so painstakingly plotted by Brecht) don’t feel to me to cooperate as drama with the persistent reference to Trump.

It’s not a question of the degree to which similarities do and do not exist. It’s more a case of whether the allusions to the need for a wall, or about having the best words, or to Ui’s slogan “I’m gonna make this country great again” or his boast at his climatic rally “Look at this crowd!/The biggest ever!” Properly enter the bloodstream of the play.

There’s a great deal of brio in the evening but it could do with more determined action at the end. Those audiences members not standing proud for Ui are invited to gather in disgrace on the stage or to abstain (ie leave in a suicidal exit). I got the impression that they had not bargained for the number who remained in their seats at the performance I saw. Fine to have a penultimate, deliberately embarrassing note but the production needs to be more quick-off-the-mark and decisive about the regime’s strategies for cover-up.

The Stage, 3rd May 2017, Natasha Tripney

If you thought that Donmar Warehouse was one of the few theatres where you could absolutely guarantee that you wouldn’t encounter audience participation, you’d be wrong.

There’s a fair sprinkling of it in Simon Evans’s staging of Brecht’s allegory. Designer Peter McKintosh has turned the space into a speakeasy with wooden chairs and tables, and a staircase leading to the gallery. Sit at the front and there’s a chance you might be asked to carry the can (quite literally) for the characters.

In The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written swiftly in 1942, Brecht uses the ascent of a Chicago racketeer as a metaphor for the rise of fascism. It’s abundantly clear who Bruce ‘Clybourne Park’ Norris has set his sights on in his new adaptation. He’s not exactly subtle about it - there are great clunking references to the building of walls and making America great again.

Lenny Henry’s performance is a model of restraint in comparison. His performance is very physical - the man knows how to fill a stage - but he’s never cartoonish. In the beginning he’s all Cagney swagger and fidgety fingers. He does a lot of acting with his shoulders, but he handles Ui’s transformation into something more sinister and formidable with skill.

The scene where Tom Edden’s acorn-fed ham of an actor teaches him how to sit, how to stand, how to present himself as a leader of me, is a highlight. This is precisely because Henry lets Edden chow down on the scenery while he stands back in his suspenders and watches. The moment when Ui first raises his arm in a quasi-Nazi salute is chilling.

The ensemble work is also strong. Michael Pennington brings emotional complexity to the corrupt Dogsborough. Edden is great manic value, doubling as a narrator and newspaperman. Lucy Ellison is unnervingly impish as Emanuele Giri, Brecht’s Hermann Goring-stand-in, and Gloria Obiyano - who was for my money, the best thing in the recent revival of musical The Wild Party - impresses in a number of smaller roles.

Evans, who directed three of the four productions at cocktail bar-cum-pop-up theatre Found111, also has previously with site-specific specialist Secret Cinema - Millers Crossing, the Coen brothers’ gangster classic, was one of his - and he deploys some of the exact same tricks here. There’s a lot of slick business with hats. There’s even a bit when someone sings Danny Boy.

This is a very entertaining production. It’s stuffed full of music, everything from Nina Simone to Radiohead, Henry’s presence anchors and enriches it, but it’s also heavy-handed in the way it insists on the play’s contemporary parallels.

For all its snazzy speakeasy trappings and it’s little jokes about corporate sponsorship, its sense of irony is undeveloped. It seems primarily concerned with showing its audience. It’s diet Brecht., 4th May 2017, Nick Wells

From stand-up comedian to red-nosed humanitarian ambassador, knight of the realm to serious Shakespearean actor, Lenny Henry has already orchestrated more hits than your average mob boss. Now, in a timely revival at the Donmar, he’s stepped into the shoes of an actual mobster - Bertolt Brecht’s demagogue Arturo Ui. A charismatic, self-aggrandising strongman determined to seize power by fair means or foul (although, he’s rather less keen on the fair).

And the funny man who made his name with comic impersonations on New Faces makes a pretty persuasive Chicago gangster. Although he doesn’t quite achieve a truly furious menace, he affects a convincing throaty snigger, a bombastic charm, and a larger than life loping physicality that is entertaining to watch. He’s at his best when dissembling in front of dubious spectators - his natural charm shines through as he sets about selling fake news and, in due course, making the country great again.

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is of course entirely deliberate. For although set in the corrupt Windy City of the 1940s, the play was written in 1941. Brecht, having fled Germany after Hitler’s ascent to power, watched as the Nazis hateful nationalism violently conquered their European neighbours. Waiting on his visa to escape the continent to America, he penned the tale of a mob boss’s takeover of the city cauliflower industry as a satire on the rise of fascism, and a warning to his new homeland of pugnacious, jingoistic leaders.

Writer Bruce Norris’s adaptation has refocussed much of its ire on the more recent (and orange) head of state across the pond - with allusions to Trump liberally weaved throughout. Eliciting cheers when the audience gleefully spots them, they sail a little too close to pantomime. The parallels in the character are obvious enough, without the need to parody Trump’s own lines.

Beyond the serious message, though, there’s a lot of fun to be had. It’s not often you arrive at your seat to find yourself in a makeshift speakeasy, with the star of the show standing by your chair shooting the breeze with the person at the table behind. And the playful blurring of the boundary between stage and audience continues throughout to hilarious effect, with punters engaged to corpses, defendants, voters, and even victims of the mob, marched out to meet their maker.

There are some fine supporting performances too, especially from Michael Pennington as the weak, manipulated bureaucrat, and Justine Mitchell in several guises, from the exasperated lawyer to the disparaging journalist’s wife.

Arturo Ui doesn’t quite manage to pull off a successful hit on this occasion, but the patrons won’t be calling on Lenny to make any complaints. You never know what might befall them if they do…

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