Wednesday, 3 May 2017
The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui at The Donmar
The Donmar has been transformed into a dimly lit Chicago Speakeasy designed by Peter McKintosh, for Bertolt Brecht’s parable on the rise of fascism led by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. In this new adaptation by the American Bruce Norris, there is no hiding the fact that The Donald has rather taken over the Hitler analogy, despite the assertion by the Announcer that “any suggestion of a correlation between the leader of a certain nation and the homicidal gangsters we depict is something that the management must strictly disavow”. When said scripted disclaimer is then wiped on the announcer’s backside, we know where the evening is going. There is no subtlety whatsoever in making sure we don’t forget the parallels with today as the script is littered with Trump references, including “I’m gonna make this country great again”.
Ui of the title, who obviously stands in for Hitler, starts the play as a shambling small time hoodlum, whose callous manipulation of the Chicago cauliflower protection racket, enables him to rise to city boss. Once in this exalted position, he is on the lookout for yet more territories to dominate. Likewise Dogsborough, a corrupt city hall boss represents President Hindenburg.
Michael Pennington plays Dogsborough with just the right mix of venality and vulnerability, whilst the rest of the cast equip themselves well, whether as one character or several. Tom Edden as Announcer/Ragg/Sheet/Actor/Butler and Grocer is particularly fine.
All of which brings me to the subject of Lenny Henry, the erstwhile stand-up comedian, turned classical actor, whose Ui, whilst not necessarily chilling, is a powerful presence. Not a small man by any means, Henry does manage to portray Ui as a moody, lolloping dolt at the beginning, before transforming him into a force to be reckoned with once he’s got a taste for power.
Unfortunately, the excellent metamorphosis from theatre to club is rather at the expense of comfort, so well done one theatre goer for bringing her own cushion (insider knowledge?). Mind you her “ringside” position, one of the wooden chairs surrounding various circular tables, did entail her rather prolonged participation as a defendant in the trial scene. Whilst audience participation can be effective, the less is more rule doesn’t apply here I’m afraid.
Despite the heavy-handed approach to various themes present in Brecht’s 1941 play, there is much to recommend this production. Thanks to Simon Evan’s excellent direction, it is pacey and funny, whilst a dangling mic is often put to good use, especially when various members of the cast burst into short snippets of popular songs. Rag ‘N Bone Man’s ‘I’m Only Human’ sung superbly by Gloria Obianyo, being one of them.
It’s a fun evening, which for me was spoilt by Lenny Henry (seemingly out of character) indulging in some political lobbying at the end …. Unnecessary!