Review of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with Lenny Henry at the Donmar Warehouse
The city of Chicago was used as a major talking point throughout the 2016 US election campaign with Donald Trump quick to highlight its crime and homicide rates, trading on fear and misunderstanding to present himself as the only viable option for change in the mid-western city and beyond. Bruce Norris' new adaptation of Brecht's allegorical play about the rise to power of a mobster who gradually removes his opposition in order to lead a cauliflower racket in 1930s Chicago feels suitably fresh and worthy of a contemporary gaze, yet equally pushes too hard to add allegory on top of allegory that an otherwise careful piece of theatre threatens to buckle.
It's certainly the most fun I've had in the Donmar for a couple of seasons and whilst the Trumped-up narrative seems a little too much of a stretch in places it's convincingly presented as to make the best case of Brecht's continued relevance in our time. Staged in the round it feels immersive and slick with Peter McKintosh's stage design transforming the auditorium into a prohibition-era speakeasy which director Simon Evans efficiently handles to both evoke the spirit of Brecht's theatrical methods complete with audience participation and anachronistic songs that give it flair and the necessary detachment that consistently reminds us of its theatricality.
We're warned from the off by Tom Edden's exquisitely performed host at the top of the evening that any suggestions of correlation between the gangsters and "leader of a certain nation" are disavowed by the management, but the parallels come thick and often too fast to allow any intellectual breathing space. Originally written as an allegory of Hitler's rise to power in 1930s Germany Brecht parallels the depression with post-crash America finding new areas of satire in Artuo Ui's rise to power. His henchmen Ernesto Roma stands in for Ernst Rohm, the President of the Weimar Republic Hindenburg becomes a dotty Dogsborough who is skilfully outmanoeuvred and both the Anschluss and the Reichstag Fire find themselves staged in new forms.
Only some of these parallels stretch into the new context which mixes verbatim Trump rhetoric - it's all there, from mocking a disabled reporter to calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, and by the time the giant 'make this country great again' banner descends it all feels like a step too far in his never-ending 'greatest hits' parade. The genius of Brecht's text is that it crafts the parable obviously yet neatly. This however beats you with it 'biggly' and doesn't allow you the freedom to enjoy connecting the dots yourself, it removes the thought from the action.
Whilst the spirit of Brecht's allegory feels ladened and mildly manipulative the piece succeeds at championing the Brechtian alienation style that consistently breaks the fourth wall and invites the audience to be a part of the production. From cameo performances by corpses and defendants to actively inviting those who defy Ui to vote with their feet there's a mischievousness that elevates and delights as the epic style is embraced with careful care by Evans. The spirited ensemble sport some dodgy accents but multi-play a committed collective that bring the world to life, occasionally in a cartoonish but enjoyable manner.
Lenny Henry carries himself impressively transforming convincingly from mannered mobster to potential leader with the aid of those around him who help him master the goose-step and punctuate the air in his impassioned speeches to the Cauliflower Trust. He looms with a natural authority yet never feels terrifying or insurmountable, instead he feels soft-centred, quivering from the inside out with a less physical type of danger that's engaging to watch.
Whilst it ultimately tries too hard to press its point there's much to enjoy in this sharp and shiny adaptation, particularly Tom Edden's chameleon-like performances that capture the atmosphere and give the piece its much needed momentum. Brecht wanted his audiences to leave the theatre pumped up and ready to act rather than settle down to enjoy an evening of entertainment, and I fear this falls into the latter category as we knowingly laugh along at the outcome without any sense of trying to stop the steam train once it has left the station. Unlike Trump, it works too hard and could easily do with a weekend at Mar-a-Largo to kick back and settle into the satire.
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