Donmar Warehouse, London – until 17 June 2017
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori
How do you get, keep and wield power? What do you use it for, and why? And, if you will stop at nothing, how can the rest of society stop you? Brecht’s satirical attack on the political rise of Hitler and the Nazis, in a vibrant new translation by Bruce Norris bolstered by punchline rhymes and lashings of Shakespeare, bounds onto centre stage blazing pinstripes and Tommy guns galore as part of the Donmar’s timely ‘Power’ season.
Simon Evans directs a slick, fast-paced and deliciously brutal production which involves and implicates us in the inexorable success of Arturo Ui, as Evans whisks us into Brecht’s imagined world where “small-time racketeers and fascist politicians…illuminate each other reciprocally.” As Brecht intended, we’re in Chicago, rather than Germany, and the power everyone wants is over the lucrative cauliflower racket – not to mention a dodgy council deal or two, sliding public funds into the pockets of criminals who go on to forcibly wrest public office from the weak, the partially honest, and the easily silenced.
Peter McKintosh’s design welcomes us into a speakeasy bar at whose centre is a clear playing space, ringed by stalls seats collected around cabaret tables – and beware, if you sit in the stalls, audience participation beckons its determined finger. But this is entirely apt for a play which Brecht designed to provoke the German people into understanding how Hitler rose, in the hope of empowering them to resist corrupt populist dictators in future; Norris’ scattering of Trump references show the Western political system is still not immune to the charms of any rich, ruthless bully who sets their mind to power.
Scene changes are beautifully and simply engineered by light (designed by Howard Harrison) and scraps of live music, as cast members each take turns to grab a swinging microphone from the air to serenade us with a few gorgeous bars of the Blues; Ed Lewis creates a luscious period soundscape with live piano, scratchy samples, and blistered radio transmissions. Meanwhile, violence is sharp, convincing and bloody, with just enough sour humour to keep pace and tension relentlessly high. Brechtian directness – ‘dead’ actors walking off stage, potted plot narration delivered through the fourth wall – reigns supreme, giving us a riotous evening which is theatrically unpretentious, fun, and sometimes unnervingly profound.
Lenny Henry gives a generally commanding performance as Arturo Ui, though occasionally struggles to exert Ui’s full authority on a stage chock full of frighteningly talented actors. However, Henry can conjure wonderful menace from stillness, and is particularly brilliant at channelling the Shakespearian roots of Ui: wheedling Betty Dullfeet over her husband’s coffin with the revolting magnetism of Richard III, portraying real terror when Ernesto Roma’s bloodied ghost (Banquo-style) appears. Henry finds the self-conscious weakness at the heart of the power-hungry, and exploits it well; still, a more solid sense of nastiness might improve things further.
Giles Terera is chillingly convincing as Ernesto Roma, a keen killer with a short fuse, in it for the long game. Roma’s death, literally stabbed in the back as Ui looks on, genuinely feels like a betrayal of trust – suddenly, we realise how enmeshed we are, Evans successfully warping our sympathies into Brecht’s illuminating web. Guy Rhys is unfailingly and brilliantly oily as Giuseppe Givola. Justine Mitchell makes a spectacularly elegant, proud and vulnerable Betty Dullfeet. Exceptional further contributions from the rest of the strong cast, including Michael Pennington’s memorably pathetic Dogsborough, keep things vivid, as well as lurid, in this finest of history lessons.