The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui

Posted by Laurence Green

The savage bleakness of Brecht's vision doesn't always come across, but this often uproariously funny revival ends up sending a chill down the spine, writes Laurence Green.

Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

It is not often you go to the theatre and find yourself entering a sleazy Prohibition-era speakeasy, but this is indeed the case with Simon Evans's startling production of Bertolt Brecht's satirical 1941 parable about the rise of fascism The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, WC2.

The setting is Chicago, a city of jazz and gangsters, prohibition and poverty. Among the murk of the Great Depression, there seems room for a small-time crook like Arturo to make a name for himself. Ui and his henchmen just want to look after you, offer protection for workers, for jobs, and for businesses. Nothing to fear. But a little bribery here, some harmless corruption there and soon something more dangerous takes hold.

The core of the plot, though centres on this small-time mobster's steps to muscle in on the Chicago cauliflower business, exploiting the frailties of his rivals until he assumes overall control "annexing" nearby territories as well, so that he becomes completely unstoppable.

The play is most readily understood as an allegorical satire of Nazism with that close correspondence between its plot and the events of 1932 to 1938m but Brecht was also concerned to maintain some independence of the gangster story that perhaps accounts for the episodic nature of the plot. It is not a one-way allegory; rather small-time racketeers and fascist politicians are to illuminate one another reciprocally - similar to his approach in The Threepenny Opera, where we learn what a fine line separates the criminals from the bankers.

In this new version by Bruce Norris best known for his provocative mini-epic Clybourne Park, its topical resonance is hammered home. Wit and menace go hand in hand, while invocations of Donald Trump, including talk about building a wall and making the country great again, are certainly timely but couldn't be described as subtle.

Director Simon Evans adopts a raw and sometimes rowdy approach in his cabaret-style production with actors performing quirky, anachronistic versions of familiar songs (Rag 'n' Bone Man one minute, Bonnie Tyler the next) and there are elements of audience participation - one brave lady gets 'shot' and has to feign being a corpse on a slab.

Lenny Henry, sporting a moustache and in his Donmar debut, is impressive as Ui, transforming convincingly from mannered mobster to potential leader. Henry makes him a smug bully with an intimidating physicality and a bruising smile. At one point he takes a lesson in deportment from an actor who instils in him a style that is both ridiculous and imperious - a mincing walk that tips into goose-stepping, the trademark Nazi salute lowered into imposing folded arms and the rhetorical trick and accompanying gestures borrowed from the actor's rendition of Mark Anthony's famous oration.

Michael Pennington brings the right mix of venality and vulnerability as an alderman seduced into corruption and left frail and hollow in futile response, while Giles Terera makes a razor-sharp  Ernesto Roma, Justine Mitchell a defiant widow and Tom Edden provides two scene-stealing turns as a flamboyant journalist, ecstatically reporting the blood-spattered events and an old fashioned thespian whose wild gesticulations are amplified by his cane and swirling cape.

Even if the savage bleakness of Brecht's vision doesn't always come across, this revival often uproariously funny and ends up sending a chill down the spine.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Plays until Saturday 17 June 2017 at the Donmar Warehouse

Box office: 0844 871 7624

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