Following a tumultuous 2016, there seems like no better time for Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui to make a return to the London stage. The production, adapted by Bruce Norris, sees the Donmar Warehouse transformed into a Chicago speakeasy where an opening monologue essentially tells the audience what’s about to happen, allowing more focus on the message than plot.
That message is hammered home with force, if you were expecting subtle you’ll be disappointed; it’s immediately obvious this production is a satirical allegory on Donald Trump, with a little Adolf Hitler (the original subject of the play) thrown in. All that was missing was Hilary Clinton riding through the Donmar on the back of a donkey.
The play charts the rise of the titular character and demagogue, Arturo Ui, a Chicago gangster who takes over the Cauliflower racket using intimidation to change public perception. What’s particularly clever is the use of audience interaction and how we were quite literally scared into submission.
Lenny Henry, in the role of Ui, gives a strong performance, though it was perhaps a little less intimidating than I expected. Tom Edden and Giles Terera also give captivating performances, but there’s a recurring problem amongst the cast; there are few of them who actually seem to fit the role they’ve been given. Perhaps there’s some form of irony intended that I didn’t grasp but did, instead, find it distracting.
There are a couple of standout scenes, for example, when Ui hires an actor (the drunken Shakespearian sort) to train him how to walk, talk and carry himself. We see Henry’s Ui literally transform on stage as the hack takes him through a comedic, but all too realistic, routine.
There’s also some unconventional use of modern music between scenes, all slowed down to give it a sensual and seductive feel, it’s probably the first time American rock band My Chemical Romance has featured in a production at this venue, yet it fits perfectly in the scene.
The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui is a chilling parable, which in this production at least, is particularly revealing, especially as we race towards another election. It has been staged beautifully, the use of audience interaction and music definitely gives it an edge and the transformation of The Donmar Warehouse adds an extra layer of authenticity. Despite some distractions with casting this is still a thrilling night of epic theatre.