Donmar Warehouse, London – until 27 June 2017
“Any suggestion of a correlation between the leader of a certain nation and the homicidal gangsters we depict is something that the management must strictly disavow.”
There’s something special in the timelessness of some pieces of theatre, their themes and arguments as relevant to audiences today as they were when they were written years, decades, even centuries ago. Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui falls into the middle category, written in 1941 as an allegorical response to his nation’s fall to Nazism, and was magisterially revived at Chichester a few years back.
For their own new production, the Donmar Warehouse has turned to Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park, The Low Road) who doesn’t quite trust the material in the same way, updating it in the most heavy-handed of manners by directly substituting Trump for Hitler. It’s an arresting move and indubitably pertinent in the way in which it expounds on the exploitation of a particularly toxic brand of populist politics.
But the problem with yoking your adaptation thus, is that it immediately dates it, you can’t imagine this version gaining timeless status. The volatility of 45’s presidency means that it is incredibly hard to satirise (without, say, the weekly format of SNL) especially when real-world news is consistently so appalling. So it is to Simon Evans’ credit that his production does much to rise above the bluntness to find subtleties within.
Peter McKintosh’s design takes us into the world of the speakeasy and there, Lenny Henry’s mobster is perfectly supercilious and smug as he rides the fascist wave to demagoguery. Ably supported by vivid performances from Giles Terera and Lucy Ellinson as his henchmen, and Tom Edden has standout moments aplenty. It’s a funny and fearless take on the play but one which undermines some of its brutal power in search of contemporary resonance that is already there.