THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI
Nottingham Playhouse, Thursday 3rd November, 2011
I’ve never been a fan of Bertie Brecht’s plays. The ideas and theatrical theories he propounded, yes, but I always felt these have been handled better by other practitioners.
This one is billed as one of his more accessible efforts. It is certainly straightforward: the rise of Hitler told through a parallel story, the rise of a Chicago gangster in the 1930s, muscling in on the city’s lucrative trade in cauliflowers. Events in Arturo Ui’s life mirror those in Adolf’s. The programme kindly provides a chart listing which character represents whom. Scenes on stage are interspersed with captions on an overhead electronic screen, the kind that on the motorway advises you not to nod off and which lanes are closed today. The captions declare what Hitler was up to at the time. The comparison couldn’t be clearer, except for the fact that Ui is fictional and Hitler, unfortunately, was not. The main objective of the play is to satirise Hitler. This is not exactly the topicality you get in Mock The Week! That the theatre sees fit to provide a wealth of background material, supporting talks and lectures suggests that a certain amount of historical knowledge is required for the audience member to get the best from the play. (The production was sponsored by the University of Nottingham, and there was a lot of students in the house, but I think theatre should be more than a teaching aid.)
It begins well. The Verfremdungseffekte are put to good use. The actors’ faces are whitened out and painted like faded clowns. The Chicago accents are broad (a little too broad in some cases for my Dudleian ears to make out what they were saying). Movement and gesture are stylised and synchronised. The effect is initially comic and engaging. Pieces of scenery and stage furniture are in view throughout. The cyclorama is a gigantic video screen on which scenic images are projected. The argot of the characters is that of the Jimmy Cagney type of film, but we are not allowed to forget for an instant that the story, although seen through the prism of a genre, is taken from reality.
Ian Bartholomew plays Ui as a nifty little mover, prone to expansive gestures and outbursts of violence. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator did this all with more elegance, pipping Bertie Brecht to the satirical post. In the funniest scene, Ui is coached in posture, movement and public speaking by an effete Shakespearean actor (William Hoyland) who has Ui quasi-goose-stepping across the stage and animating his parroting of the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech with a range of gestures all too familiar from wartime newsreels.
The V-effects and the stylised movement peter out after a while and such things as the video projection become part of the stagecraft (for example when Nick Moss appears as Roma’s ghost) rather than jolting us back to consideration of the ethics and politicking of the situation. The second act lacks the spirit of the first – the play becomes like a student essay that keeps making the same point in order to fill out the word count or, in this case, the running time.
Only at the end when the final caption rolls across the screen does the direct relevance of the play to today hit home. It is chilling: a rhyme celebrates the eventual downfall of the “beast” and gives a stark warning that “The womb from which he sprang is in heat again.”