The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Reviewer's Rating

There is something irresistible about the title of this play – it embodies the core of the Berthold Brecht’s anti-Nazi views and his perception of Hitler, despite the fact that this play, written in 1941, was neither published nor performed during the playwright’s lifetime.  ‘Resistible’ can also be translated as ‘Stoppable’, and ‘Ui’ resonates with ‘oy’, a cry of pain or exasperation.

The auditorium is filled with a 1930s air of a cheap downtown cabaret atmosphere even before the play commences.  A lady in a long, bright red, body-hugging dress and rouged lips to match, sings  to the accompaniment of a few males in light suits and shoes of the period (strikingly similar to those worn by the gangsters in the film Some Like It Hot).  The atmosphere is relaxed and somewhat casual. The Master of Ceremonies introduces the gangsters, who parade in a manner befitting a fashion show, exposing, with greasy humour and cocky pride, their claim to notoriety, as members of Chicago’s gangster clans.  The heat is turned up when the last but not least of the gangsters is announced – Arturo Ui.  A small-built man, resembling Hitler’s physique, moustache and hair-do, bursts into the room through what looks like a film poster, which reads ‘Scarface’. This is not just any old film poster, ‘Scarface’ was the nickname of the notorious 1930s Chicago gangster, Al Capone.

Henry Goodman, in the title role, is outstandingly brilliant. He starts as a pathetic little hoodlum, in a constant state of fear. His exquisite mime evokes Chaplin’s lampooning of Hitler in the The Great Dictator.  Goodman’s Ui draws laughs from the audience and gets his henchmen to elevate him to Godfather status. He dreams and adopts ideas to acquire control over the cauliflower trades of Chicago (= Germany) and neighbouring Cicero (=Austria), through extortion, blackmail and elimination of suspected associates.

Ui’s power and control occasions the need of communication with a wider audience. A failed Shakespearean actor, exquisitely performed by Keith Baxter, is at hand to teach him the art of projecting voice elocution, or in Ui’s words “electrocution” tuition. Words and gestures evolve and the Führer becomes recognisable in Ui, not merely by association with his meagre appearance but through the recognisable projection of words and gestures such as rigid goose-steps, crossing of the arm postures, stubbing the air with his finger and hands, and raising his voice as and when required.

Brecht links Hitler’s career in some detail to that of Al Capone. Jonathan Church’s direction imperceptibly teases out similarities but draws more on Chaplin’s caricature of Hitler. Goodman’s impeccable ability to parody Hitler without trivialising the menacing implications of his actions reaches its crescendo in the last scene, where the audience’s laugh is replaced by audible gasps.

George Tabori’s translation revised by Alistair Beaton provides a coherent, contemporary and effervescent play which is enhanced by superb supporting performances, particularly from Michael Feast’s Roma (Röhm), Joe McGann’s ruthless Giri (Göring).

A production not to be missed.