This adaptation by Bruce Norris of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is political satire at it’s absolute best. The piece takes place in Chicago, 1941, and the battle of the gangsters in the cauliflower trade is brutal, but it goes much deeper than that, as this production is a parody of the rise of Trump, and it is notable to add that the original play was based on Hitler’s rise to power. Needless to say, this is a story of vanity, corruption and betrayal.
This production at the Donmar Warehouse is set in the round, forcing the audience into the space, and even before the performance begins, the actors are seen milling around, interacting casually with audience members. A particularly enjoyable aspect was the use of multi-rolling, and the fact that the play was cast gender blind, with Lucy Ellinson, Justine Mitchell and Gloria Obianyo all playing male characters, and as a spectator you completely forget that they themselves are not male. Stephen Mear as movement director puts meticulous detail into the score of movement, with every moment articulated with purpose. Lenny Henry in the title role, Arturo Ui, has a hefty presence, and when we are first introduced to him his posture is slightly hunched with one shoulder forward, a swaggering walk and imposing manner. A scene which demands attention is when the Actor (Tom Edden) teaches Arturo (Henry) how to correct his posture and speak in a professional way. Edden’s melodramatic character has the entire audience in uproarious laughter, and is a very memorable moment because it is underpinned by the grave severity of the situation, as Arturo develops into the powerful monster we will see him become. Each actor delivers a truly remarkable performance, some unrecognisable as they jump from one character to the next. Director Simon Evans creates a truly entertaining world of musical bursts, audience participation and shocking surprises. For instance, a pleasant surprise is the use of contemporary songs, under the composition and sound design of Ed Lewis, in this 1940s world, driving home the relevance this subject has in our time also.
Lighting designer Howard Harrison’s use of spotlights cleverly emphasizes pinnacle moments, and the use of lighting to create a fire effect ties in with the whole production’s “stripped back” approach which was Brecht’s signature style. This can also be said for the set design, which sees tables and other objects being brought on and off or even built in front of us by the actors, giving us the suggestion of where the scene is taking place, contributing to the immediacy of the events. This is a wonderful example of creatively using the space, rather than relying on grand set pieces. Costume is partly relied on to differentiate the multi rolled characters, and Peter McKintosh creates stylish and sleek costumes, whilst the stunning wigs and makeup are provided by Campbell Young Associates.
This is a scintillating piece of theatre, which, unfortunately, is as relevant now as it was then, as the Announcer (Edden) says, “This gangster play is sadly all too current”. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui has such an energy which you are certain to take home with you.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is playing at Donmar Warehouse until June 17.
Photo: Helen Maybanks