You don’t need a degree in drama to discern political satire when the lead is jabbing his finger in the air, bellowing “We need a wall! To keep the bad guys out”. As if the past year hasn’t provided enough real-life political drama, Bruce Norris’ adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, couldn’t be more apropos.
Written in 1941 the play is a sobering political allegory of Hitler’s rise to power and a testament to the dangers of authority unopposed. Ironically, the piece was originally written for an American audience. The setting is depression era Chicago – a gloomy town run by twisted politicians and gun wielding mobsters. Sir Lenny Henry takes the lead, giving a riveting performance of pure comedic malice as hardnosed Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui. Over eighteen scenes we witness Ui’s ascent from criminal low-life to all-powerful tyrant.
However, the cautionary political parable does not end there. Norris transforms Brecht’s tale of brute political force into an entertaining, if at times unsubtle, critique of Donald Trump. From Arturo Ui’s obsession with the media to the dweeby inflection of this voice – the leader of the free world is constantly and relentlessly lampooned. Henry is a performer rich in complexity – his Arturo is a comical if not slightly oafish thug. Yet there is something impotent in his spitting towering rage – perhaps because he fails to convey the gravity of smooth statesmanlike eloquence that propelled Hitler to power. It’s easy to draw glib parallels between Trump and Hitler – but other than deeply abhorrent populist rhetoric the similarities are tenuous. Whilst undeniably entertaining, it feels like a choice was made to pursue the topical hook rather than keep faith with Brecht’s original vision.
Much of the action unfolds in a murky underground speakeasy. Peter McKintosh’s clever seating of the audience around tables creates a sense of complicity with the violence. One cannot help the feeling of pantomime as the audience are continuously hauled from their seats to partake in the action – whether it’s playing a bloodied corpse under a sheet or lugging cans of kerosene to torch the regime’s opponents.
There is much to commend the small and fantastically versatile cast playing a total of 35 characters across 18 scenes – in particular, Giles Terera and Tom Edden are both fantastically and infinitely watchable. The energy is unmistakable and musical numbers provide diverting punctuation between each scene – Mack the Knife, a number from Moulin Rouge and Danny Boy are all present and a nod to Brecht’s exuberant style of “epic theatre”.
Without giving away too much, the finale is a strong one, in that whether working the Trumpian angle was the right move becomes immaterial. We are however left with one thing. To quote Brecht, “as political scientists observe, we only get the leaders we deserve”.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse until 17th June 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website. Production images by Helen Maybanks.