THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
By Bertolt Brecht
Duchess Theatre, London
Stylistically one of Brecht's more accessible works, it has the energy of a piece written in anger as indeed it was. Having fled the Nazis, Brecht was holed up in Helsinki, awaiting his visa for entry to the US. It was not staged however until after his death in 1958.
Brecht showed how someone who is on the surface quite unprepossessing and even comical could rise to the top by using corruption in high places to gain leverage for his protection rackets and he showed how every political gangster started small. By use of a neat allegory he presents the rise of Hitler via a 1930's Hollywood gangster movie. It chronicles the attempts by a petty despot to control the vegetable market (no less) in Chicago by ruthlessly disposing of his opposition, one by one.
In the beginning we cannot believe how anyone could take this Ui guy seriously. In a mesmerising performance Goodman presents him as a little man, all bunched up in his tight suits and with greased down hair. He's a collection of tics and jerks and leers, with a thick Brooklyn twang, a Mr Nobody, eaten up by anger and frustration. It's part Chaplin's Great Dicatator, part Brando doing Mark Anthony. Goodman then beautifully calibrates the evolution of this ogre into a polished political leader, one we might see today fronting a party political broadcast.
Director Jonathan Church has most fun with what today would be called Ui's media training. Employing a washed out old ham actor to "learn him" how to stand and walk and sit, Goodman's comic invention is a joy to behold and Keith Baxter is in gloriously fruity form as The Actor. But Goodman makes us realise that beneath this hapless, accident prone, jittery exterior lies an intelligent mind and the soul of a shrewd manipulator.
The surrounding cast are also solid with Michael Feast frighteningly reptilian as Roma, Joe McGann as the thuggish right-hand man Giri and David Sturzacker as the slippery Givola. All these characters have direct parallels to the group that surrounded Hitler, so if you know your Nazi history you can start filling in the blanks.
The production is greatly enhanced by Simon Higlett's spare but spot-on designs and Tim Mithell's film noir lighting demonstrates just how effective it can be to merely shoot shards of light through a side-stage cooling fan. It's Edward Hopper meets Humphrey Bogart.
Having conquered Chicago Arturo then sets his sights on the neighbouring town of Cicero (the Austrian anschluss). The convolutions of this take-over are laboriously played out such that the second act does sag. The play ends though with a breathtakingly effective coda when we see the triumphant Ui atop a huge podium bedecked with a fascist logo. Goodman comes out of character and in a Brechtian (well why not) coda, delivers the great lines about how "the monster is dead but the bitch that bore him is in heat again".
Makes one contemplate how easy it is for populations to be easily seduced with empty phrases and lazy scapegoating. Golden Dawn for one.
This is a timeless piece and Goodman's performance must be seen.