FringeReview UK 2017
Bruce Norris’ adaptation of Brecht’s 1941 The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui nails it to its period in Simon Evans’ direction: a production happier with audience participation than placards. Peter Mackintosh’s Speakeasy Donmar set deploys bar chairs replacing seating in the stalls, a staircase up to a new fourth audience circle –not so much in-the-round as in-the-well. Composer and sound designer Ed Lewis funnels Hans Eisler’s music through his own. Howard Harrison’s lighting smokes and stabs.
Bruce Norris’ adaptation of Brecht’s 1941 The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui nails it to its period so it can speak to ours. It’s a leaner Brechtian vehicle, his most rapidly-written, least self-conscious. No wonder it’s popular. There’s more cabaret, less alienation in Simon Evans’ direction: a production happier with audience participation than placards. But we get one bumper to make up for it.
It’s certainly cabaret Brecht in Peter Mackintosh’s Speakeasy Donmar set where bar chairs replace seating in the stalls, with an audience drinking, stripped floor and an upright give on to the one feature, a staircase up to a new fourth audience circle – it’s not so much in-the-round as in-the-well, all girt behind bar balustrades where actors pop up with menaces for audience members. And even in the foyer there are vertically ranged… cabbages. Vegetable boxes theme their way through the evening. Composer and sound designer Ed Lewis funnels Hans Eisler’s music through his own. Howard Harrison’s lighting smokes and stabs to perfection.
From the singing and MC announcer Tom Edden’s period wireless intro we’re plunged into Brecht’s metaphor, a precise mapping of Nazi rise with German politics on the muscling-in on Chicago’s cabbage trade by Arturo Ui. Once a malleable and querulous Board have been dismissed (corrupt and compromised Prussian landowners) and Sheet dispatched there’s the moment Michael Pennington’s Dogsborough (aka Hindenburg) is menaced. Pennington’s riven gravitas fissures underneath him just as Ui and his boys turn nasty. He later takes on a small role of pastor. This is a superb ensemble effort and it’s difficult even to single out Lenny Henry as a magnificently physical Ui for similar reasons though Norris’s pointed translation runs such lines through Henry as ‘I’m gonna make this country great again.’ The parallel with Trump’s no precise fit, he can’t openly kill his enemies and there’s an opposition; but more of that later. Henry’s take is boiling containment that loses itself, and with his superb scenes with Tom Edden’s drunken and prone Actor he learns his strut and raised arm in a curious fold gesture like a camp table. Starting out as a baggy monster, Henry transforms himself to a gleaming, far more dangerous dictator than any Al Capone. Cut yourself on his sharp suits and you’ll die.
Ernesto Roma, Hitler’s murdered henchman is twirled and snapped by Giles Terera, the sentimentally loyal and far more murderous lieutenant whom Ui trusts, till the weight of his embarrassing kills begins to tally danger for Ui himself. Lucy Ellinson’s Giri the dandy killer looks like Bowie impressing Dietrich, gone sour. Justine Mitchell’s Mrs Dullfleet is both superbly defiant in denouncing Ui as sociopath and finally realistic with her widow’s crest fallen. She fleshes the role. Lucy Eaton’s Dockdaisy and Gloria Obianyo’s Flake are differently memorable.
The most memorable contribution otherwise though is the audience itself. Pulled out and tried, dragged on under bloody sheets as corpses, ordered to stand and arrested when several sit, some indeed invited to sit on chairs facing the government of gunmen. They all did on the night I went. ‘The resistance’ the gunmen cheerfully quipped rather overwhelmed by the volunteers for a massacre.
At this point all our placards drop in one, ‘Help Make America Great Again’ yes obvious but perhaps Brecht after all would have approved. Trump’s presidency will probably remain the most absurd, potentially dangerous and childishly narcissistic. He’s by no means a fit with Ui, either Henry’s menacing one or the way other productions underscore this so chillingly – Henry Goodman’s and perhaps above all Leonard Rossiter’s remain benchmarks. Henry deserves his place alongside Goodman at least. If the production mightn’t replicate that chill, it’s of its time, serves as a timely marker of a new nadir of western degradation. That gives it permanent relevance.