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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

Above all, what Brecht sets out to show is that fascism is not an unstoppable force but a resistible extension of free-market capitalism.

              Michael Billington of the Guardian Reviews Brecht’s play.
It is always good to see Lenny Henry on stage and he exudes massive authority as Brecht’s murderous Chicago racketeer in this parable about the rise of fascism. It strikes me, however, that there is something a touch glib about the frequent invocations of Donald Trump in Bruce Norris’s new adaptation. While Simon Evans’s production and Peter McKintosh’s design successfully transform the Donmar into a sleazy speakeasy, the incorporation of audience members into the action also lends the play an air of communal jokiness.

Written in 1941, Brecht’s play does several things at once. It transforms German history into a gangster melodrama often with surprising exactness. Not only does Arturo stand in for Hitler but the white-haired Weimar president, Hindenburg, is turned into the corrupt City Hall boss, Dogsborough, and the Prussian landowning class here become the reactionary cauliflower trust. Brecht’s play also combines echoes of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator with a stream of Shakespearean references to Richard III and Macbeth. Above all, Brecht sets out to show that fascism is not an unstoppable force but a resistible extension of free-market capitalism.

Norris’s new version, however, never lets us forget the parallels with today. An announcer ironically denies any link between Brecht’s homicidal gangsters and “the leader of a certain nation”. Later the widow of the murdered Dullfeet denounces Arturo as “the very textbook definition of a sociopath” and, in case we miss the point, Arturo himself triumphantly proclaims: “I’m gonna make this country great again.” But, at numerous points, the comparison with Trump breaks down. Where Arturo brutally dispatches his enemies, Trump has bred an active opposition. Paul Krugman’s recent likening of Trump, in the New York Times, to a temperamental six-year-old child out of the Twilight Zone seems to me nearer the mark than the suggestion that he is a modern Adolf Hitler.

Evans’s production also appears torn between evoking the world of Chicago protection rackets and creating an interactive spectacle. Everything is done to give a flavour of period verisimilitude, down to the smoky songs and the use of crates of cauliflowers. But, while Brecht would have welcomed the idea of spectators sitting at tables with a drink, Evans overdoes the audience involvement. We laugh merrily at seeing our neighbours hauled on stage to play a corpse or a harassed trial-defendant rather than coolly assessing, as we should, the links between political extremism and economic decline.

Henry deserves praise, however, for accurately capturing Arturo’s transformation from a shambling klutz into a figure of authoritarian power. Even though I’ve seen the pivotal episode when Arturo takes lessons from a Shakespearean actor more sharply played, and Tom Edden as the thesp gives us too much uncured ham, the moment when Henry magisterially folds his arms across his chest in imitation of Hitler still provokes nervous laughter.

Michael Pennington lends Dogsborough the right mix of venality and vulnerability and there is strong support from Giles Terera as a razor-sharp Ernesto Roma and Justine Mitchell as Dullfeet’s defiant widow. But, while I understand the urge to give Brecht’s play a contemporary bite, it takes more than references to newspaper guys as envious “losers” and to cities overrun with immigrants to persuade me that Arturo Ui is a prefiguration of Donald Trump.

• At the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 17 June. Box office: 0844 871 7624.

This post first appeared on ORGANIZED RAGE, please read the originial post: here

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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.


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