The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written by Bertolt Brecht in the 1950s and set in the 1930s, is a satyrical allegory based on Hitler’s rise to power as well as the career of the gangster Al Capone. ‘Ui’ a small time hood, has his sights set on taking over the Chicago cauliflower business, whatever the cost, and Bruce Norris‘s adaptation of the text works wonderfully.
From the moment you enter the theatre building you are met with the devious and underhand world of 1930s Chicago gangland. I don’t want to give away too much here… but from the start, more than usual is asked of an audience.
The stage itself is in the centre of the room and when you enter it almost feels as if you have walked into a gin joint; the party already in full flow.
The boxing ring like structure of the stage, the use of the announcers mic, the audience as participator as well as observer and glimpses of characters ‘gestus’ (movement used by Brecht to indicate attitude), all speak of Brecht’s Epic Theatre.
Lenny Henrys ‘Ui’ is utterly compelling, turning from a hunched and drawling gangster to an authoritative and powerful speaker in the space of a single act. At times one can’t help but almost like ‘Ui’, he has a certain undeniable charm as he works his audience. This however, serves to make him all the more terrifying when, his manner turns, his anger inflamed and death is the result. A rousing speech near the end of act one has direct parallels to the current US administration and even contains exact dialogue from the Trump campaign trail. The setting may be Chicago in the 1930s, but the context is sadly distinctly relatable.
The entire ensemble are perfectly cast and together create a thoroughly convincing world. One of the most melodramatic characters ever to grace the Donmar must be Tom Eddens ‘Actor’, played up to comic perfection.
Lucy Ellinson is suitably creepy and subtly self serving as the unnerving ‘Emanuele Giri’ and Lucy Eaton‘s Dockdaisy is the perfect ‘gangsters moll’ who’s end is the only one befitting a lady of her dubious character.
Sound and lighting design are utilised perfectly to enhance the action, from the steely streets of Chicago to a sun dappled Manor House in the countryside. Gunshots are underlined with a bright and caustic flash, contrasting with the delicate birdsong at Dogsborough’s country house.
A highlight for me, as already briefly touched upon, is the movement work (by Stephen Mear). The repetitive movements employed by ‘Ui’ at significant moments works to ‘alienate’ and reminds you that that this is indeed a work by Brecht.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a welcome and warning revival. It forces the audience to be critical and to have opinions rather than simply sit in the dark and be passive. The best kind of theatre.
Reviewed by Byron Butler
Photo: Helen Maybanks
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 17 June 2017