Sunday, 3 November 2013

Irresistible Brecht with a message for now

Henry Goodman as Artuto Ui
It’s not often that you find agit-prop in the heart of London’s West End but, for a brief season only, the Duchess is playing host to Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

It’s a classic mistake of many British productions down the decades to treat Brecht with a kind of awed reverence, but there’s no such mistake in this transfer from The Chichester Festival Theatre.

Although he began work on it while in exile in Finland in 1941, Ui was not preformed until 1958, two years after the playwright’s death.

Brecht himself called it a “history farce”, and it's not difficult to see why.

Using a background of Jazz Age Chicago, it tells the story of how the eponymous Ui, a no-mark of a gangster.

But Ui has ambition and, seeing an opportunity, sets out to use the regional cauliflower trade to rise to power on the back of a protection racket and violence.

This might be a parable of the rise of Hitler, but it’s broad comedy, owing more here to Mel Brooks than to anything serious.

And then, as the second act concludes, the play – and production – provides one massive, gut-constricting punch that tells the audience, quite clearly: ‘don’t think this is just history you’ve been laughing at’.

Or, as the final words state of Hitler: “the bitch that bore him is in heat again”.

William Gaunt and Henry Goodman
In a world where nationalist and far-right parties are on the rise, and where bankers and big business profiteer on a scale and with an arrogance never quite seen before, and all with the active aid of ideologically-approving governments and media that plays divide-and-rule by demonising the poorest in society, or unhampered by other governments that are too scared or confused to do anything more than tinker at the edges occasionally and hope for a good headline, Brecht’s warning from history is as apt as ever.

The Uis/Hitlers of this world can be resisted and must be resisted is his message.

This is a fun production with a very good cast. It gets clunky in the second act, briefly, after the murder of Dullfoot, but picks up instantly.

It can help to know some history to spot the sketches of assorted historical figures and events: Dogsborough is Hindenburg, Roma is Röhm, Giri is Göring, Givola is Göbbels and the warehouse fire is the Reichstag fire of 1933.

The translation is not the newest, but is George Tabori’s, with slight changes by Alistair Beaton – incidentally, it’s fun playing spot-the-Shakespeare-reference/quote – and director Jonathan Church has done away with Brecht’s surtitles that made the Nazi-era references explicit, primarily to make it easier to see this as being a warning for the future and not just about the past.

Michael Feast and Henry Goodman
Of the cast, particular mentions go to William Gaunt, Joe McGann and Michael Feast, who are excellent as Dogsborough, Giri and Roma respectively.

Henry Goodman in the title role is on superb form. It’s a masterclass in physical comedy, while the transformation from the silly man you ignore to the tyrant who wields power over you remains subtle.

The scene where an ageing classical actor teaches him to walk, stand and speak is an absolute hoot.

As mentioned at the start, it’s not often you get a play like this in the West End, and it illustrates that Brecht is both damned good fun, and every bit as relevant as he ever was.

It’s on for a few more weeks, so there’s still some time to catch it on a very short run.

• At the Duchess Theatre until 7 December.


  1. My parents went to see this play on impulse a while ago; it must have been very early on in its run at The Duchess. Prior to the performance they met you in the wine bar in John Lewis, which is how I came to hear about your blog - because I always make a point of following up on coincidences and chance encounters.

    Occasionally happenstance like this comes around full circle as would appear to be the case here.

    1. First, thank you so much for commenting.

      And yes – what a coincidence!

      Please give my best regards to your parents – we had a lovely chat.