'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui': Theater Review

Courtesy of Helen Maybanks
Lucy Ellinson (left) and Lenny Henry in 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui'
Not quite irresistible but still a timely Trumpian take.
6/17/2017

British comedy veteran Lenny Henry stars in this topical revival of Bertolt Brecht’s classic political satire about a fascist demagogue and his alt-right followers, adapted by Bruce Norris.

We sad losers in the liberal elite have tried to console ourselves recently with the notion that Donald Trump’s reign will at least inspire a rich harvest of politically engaged protest art. Wishful thinking perhaps, but Trump’s shadow certainly looms bigly over director Simon Evans’ new West End revival of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 satirical epic The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which reimagines Adolf Hitler as a Prohibition-era Chicago gangster who bribes, bullies and murders his way into power.

Adapted by Pulitzer and Tony winner Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park), this production was announced soon after last November’s election. Which suggests it was planned long before, and thus its timely Trumpian trimmings were added later. Shameless opportunism? Maybe, but also an irreverent grab at political currency in the spirit of Brecht himself. This topical sizzle definitely adds extra bite to a lively vaudevillian romp that is delivered with gusto across the board, even if it sometimes leans towards the conventional.

Evans’ immersive, interactive staging opens with actors and audience mingling on a sparse Speakeasy set, a pleasing early breach of fourth-wall formality. Costumes and setting are broadly true to the period, while casting cuts across race and gender lines, with some actors remaining in drag throughout. Following in the footsteps of Christopher Plummer, Peter Falk, John Turturro and Al Pacino, British comedian Lenny Henry could well be the first black actor to play Ui in a major production. A recently knighted and much-loved household name in Britain, the 58-year-old Henry has taken on increasingly serious roles in recent years, playing Othello on stage and guesting on the third season of TV crime drama Broadchurch.

In more typically comic roles, Henry can appear over-eager to please, so it comes as a relief that he resists any forced clowning here, lacing his natural laidback charm with latent menace and sudden bursts of spittle-flecked violence. Adopting a plausibly nasal Brooklyn twang, his animated performance has a De Niro-ish quality, all shrugs and grimaces and Method tics. His body language also changes markedly throughout the drama. After Ui takes lessons from a louche Shakespearean actor (Tom Edden), his loose-limbed slouch becomes stiff-backed, Nazi-saluting, stage-managed political showmanship. Politics as performance.

All the key characters and plot points in Brecht’s quasi-Marxist parable had direct parallels in recent German history. Arturo Ui is plainly Hitler, his loyal lieutenant Ernesto Roma (Giles Terera) is modeled on fellow Nazi party founder Ernst Roehm, Emanuele Giri (Lucy Ellinson) is Herman Goering, Giuseppe Givola (Guy Rhys) represents Joseph Goebbels, Dogborough (Michael Pennington) is the ailing Chancellor Hindenburg, and so on. Terera, Ellinson and Rhys all deserve plaudits for their live-wire performances as antagonistic rivals competing for Ui’s attention.

Opening with a sarcastic mock-disclaimer that any resemblance to real people is pure coincidence, this production ticks off its Trumpian checklist with pride. Ui is a charismatic populist who rails against criminal immigrants and lying journalists, who boasts “I have all the best words,” who blames “illegal voters” and “paid protestors” for his electoral setbacks and who vows to “make this country great again” to his baying mob of supporters. “Look at this crowd, the biggest ever,” Henry grins, a line that earned one of the biggest laughs at the performance I saw.

Some U.K. reviewers have dismissed these Trump allusions as glib and gimmicky. In my view, Norris could have made the parallels bolder. A more combative, adventurous update might have probed deeper into the current White House’s record of tone-deaf responses to anti-Semitism, for example, or into Trump’s clammy proximity to the so-called "alt-right." Why dwell on fictionalized fascists when real, living, breathing neo-Nazis are resurgent across the globe?

Spanning almost two and a half hours, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui drags in places. At the time the play was written, Hitler was still waging war across Europe. Events such as the "Eastern aid" bribery scandal, the arson attack on Berlin's Reichstag and Germany's forced annexation of Austria were still recent and raw. But 80 years later, there is scant dramatic value in seeing them anatomized onstage in painstaking allegorical detail. Evans and Norris could have streamlined or cut some of these more drawn-out procedural scenes with no great sacrifice. Their set-piece finale, in which a glowering Ui presides over a rigged election, also lacks the accusatory force of Brecht's original.

Even so, this boisterous, light-footed production works hard to keep our attention. As the plot thickens, random audience volunteers are even pressed into playing cameo roles, from corpses to jury members. Norris shapes some of the strongest duologues into rhyming verse volleys spiked with comic zing and four-letter profanity. Various castmembers also take the spotlight for musical scene breaks in which jazzy torch-song snippets of Radiohead, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and others provide a sardonic soundtrack to the bloody events onstage. Death is a cabaret, old chum.

Venue: Donmar Warehouse, London
Cast: Lenny Henry, Giles Terera, Lucy Ellinson, Tom Edden, Michael Pennington, Guy Rhys, Lucy Eaton, Gloria Obianyo, Simon Holland Roberts
Director: Simon Evans
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Bruce Norris from Susan Hingley's translation
Set designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting designer: Howard Harrison
Costume supervisor: Yvonne Milnes
Music & sound designer: Ed Lewis
Movement director: Stephen Mear
Presented by the Donmar Warehouse

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