The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was the final play written in the extraordinarily prolific period of Bertolt Brecht’s Scandinavian exile (1933–41), a period that, among other works, produced the first version of Galileo, The Good Person of Szechwan, Mother Courage, and Herr Puntila and His Man Matti.
Ui was tossed off in a matter of three weeks in Finland as the Nazis conquered Europe and Brecht desperately awaited his US visa. It was a darkly satirical portrayal of the rise of Hitler couched in a form that Brecht hoped would make it accessible to an American audience. Correctly viewing the Nazis as successful thugs, he transposed the story of their rise to gangster-ridden Chicago and deliberately downplayed the Nazi attempt to conquer Europe into an attempt to control the Chicago vegetable market.
The characters in the play are thinly disguised versions of the leading players in the Nazi takeover of the German Reich, and several of the historical events – the Reichstag fire, the Night of the Long Knives, and the annexation of Austria, for instance – are paralleled closely. In Brecht’s words: ‘In Ui the problem was on the one hand to let the historical events show through’ but also to let the play ‘work independently of its topical references.’ But the play did not appeal to an America that had yet to join the war, and it was not produced until after Brecht’s death in 1956.
Because the play’s lead role is such a huge, juicy one, the productions that have occurred since the first one in Stuttgart have on the whole been showcases for leading actors who have been able to portray Ui as they would Richard III, as a fascinating historical monster. But given the present rise of would be dictators around the world and the sudden fragility of the Western democratic ideal, the play’s famous final line ‘the bitch that bore him is in heat again’ seems terrifyingly topical. Indeed, the bitch in question has already dropped a healthy litter.
Kip Williams has wisely decided not to link the play to any particular person. Neither Hitler nor the most obvious present example – the orange nightmare in the White House – is referenced. The question is what have he and Hugo Weaving put in their place?
By now Williams more or less owns the Roslyn Packer Theatre stage, and he plays it like a master. Together with Robert Cousin’s sets, Marg Horwell’s costumes, Nick Schlieper’s lighting and Stefan Gregory’s sound design, Williams has created a slick, superb-looking production. Justine Kerrigan’s video projections on the whole work well, especially in the Roma ghost scene.
The problems begin with the script. Setting the opening scene, in which the directors of the vegetable trust successfully attempt to bribe the supposedly incorruptible politician Dogsborough, in a Chinese restaurant is a wonderfully Sydney touch, and throughout the play the translator, Tom Wright, adds some marvellously sly allusions to Australian federal and state politics. But Brecht used for comic effect a deliberately rough and ready blank verse. The contrast between the formality of the verse and the expletive-laden dialogue of the gangsters accentuates the inflated sense of importance of these thugs. Transposed to prose, we merely have a bunch of hooligans yelling abuse at one another.
But the major drawback to the production concerns the character of Arturo Ui himself. One part of the forward momentum of the play is Ui’s rise to power, but the other is his development from an uncouth, minor gangster to a charismatic leader. But Hugo Weaving plays him at much the same level throughout the play. Being Weaving, this level is a high one and he has many powerful moments, but we don’t get to see the creation of the public persona of Ui the politician. This deficit comes across most strongly in the scene that is at the heart of the play, in which Ui is coached in public presentation. In this production it is played mainly as a chance for Mitchell Butel to present a comic impersonation of a theatre director, an impersonation that went over particularly well as an in-joke with the first-night audience. The scene ends with the director coaching Ui in Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar. At first the director prompts the stumbling Ui line by line, but the director fades out, and as Ui completes the speech we watch the terrifying sight of this incarnation of evil grow in confidence as he relishes his new-found ability to sway the masses. Or we should watch that. In this production, Weaving simply recites the soliloquy straight and the point is lost. Moreover, there appears to be very little difference in his speeches after he has been coached.
The rest of the cast are fine. Peter Carroll plays Dogsborough, the corrupted ‘uncorruptible’ politician, for sympathy, which is effective, if not exactly what Brecht intended. Anita Hegh is strong as the widowed Mrs Dullfeet who is forced to capitulate to Ui, her husband’s murderer. Mitchell Butel makes Clark a conniving, manipulative bastard under a bland exterior. Of Ui’s three henchmen, Colin Moody’s brutal Roma comes over best. Ursula Yovich’s Givola and Ivan Donato’s Giri appear as generic gangster sidekicks. Brecht may have abjured Stanislavski’s focus on character, but that doesn’t mean that his people should not have distinctive characteristics, and we miss Givola’s oleaginous cunning and Giri’s bombastic pomposity.
Nevertheless, given the perilous nature of our present times, the innate potency of the play still comes over. Even in the darkest of times, Brecht was convinced of the importance of art and the joy in creating it. To quote the motto which ends the series of poems he wrote in Svendborg: ‘In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.’
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Sydney Theatre Company), directed by Kip Williams, is showing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from 28 March to 28 April 2018. Performance attended: 27 March.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.