The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a play by Bertolt Brecht that went down a storm as part of the Chichester Festival and as a result has transferred to the West End. It’s not your usual West End fare to pull in the punters – a play which parodies Hitler’s rise to power – but then again I don’t think it’s everything I usually expect from Brecht.
I have a love/hate relationship with Brecht, and being unfamiliar with Arturo Ui found myself impressed by its sophistication. Brecht sets the play in Chicago’s depression amongst a group of gangsters looking to expand their protection racket into the vegetable business, specifically cauliflowers. This send up brilliantly attacks Hitler’s methods with parallels to gangsters “protecting” local businesses in exchange for cash or else. Arturo Ui is our Hitler doppelganger, whose progression from self-conscious and gawky (physically mimicking Richard III’s hunched back), to an intimidating and almost charismatic leader is compelling to watch, more so than the storyline which does require a lengthy set up to get going, and is very much of its time.
As a result, it’s the performances that carry this show: minor characters admittedly do blend into one imitation of the characters in The Godfather, but there are some stand out performances, which take things that extra mile. I can’t help but see a stately Donald Sutherland in William Gaunt’s Dogsborough, and Lizzy McInnerny has brilliant gravitas as Betty Dullfoot. As for the bad guys, Michael Feast is vicious and demands the audience’s attention as Ernesto Roma, hitman and Hitler’s right hand man. But obviously, Henry Goodman is the star of this show as Arturo Ui. His physicality and vocal flexibility are a rare gift, and Goodman’s ability to set the tone of the scene perfectly for the purposes of comedy or tragedy lead this show from beginning to end.
The first half may drag but it is littered with regular laughs, in particular the scene in which an actor played by Keith Baxtor teaches Arturo Ui how to walk, talk and sit like a powerful man, and play with physical comedy gags that mock Hitler’s very particular mannerisms. But as was important for Brecht, this isn’t all giggles, and as the play goes on, the horror of the situation in Germany becomes more and more prominent. Not a lot of violence is portrayed on stage, but this background activity effectively communicates the characters’ inability to oppose Hitler.
The play culminates in a scene which recalls the Nuremberg Rallies, and standing upon a tower of skeletons, as Goodman sheds his Hitler moustache and talks to us as himself, you’re reminded that Brecht has been commentating on a very real event. I suppose this is what makes Arturo Ui stand out against his other plays, which focus so clearly on reminding the audience that what they’re watching is fictional – it’s influenced the most by real events. Jonathan Church’s production is slow and steady, but gathers momentum to eventually win my vote of confidence.
The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui is playing at the Duchess Theatre until 17 December. For more information and tickets, see the Duchess Theatre website.