Unoriginal and didactic, Brecht has been called many things in his lifetime, but one can't deny the fact that he had a razor-sharp mind that was able to cut right to the bone of political atrocities. Recreating the world in a theatre can only make an impact if what is described can be conceived of as changeable. And when we watch the ridiculous imp Arturo Ui weaselling his way up through a reign of violence and manipulation, Brecht shows how he thinks Hitler could have been stopped. Although Brecht refused to call this play a parable, it is exactly that. All of the events in the play correspond to real events in the 30s and 40s in Germany, and we see how Hitler climbed up the ranks in the government to become chancellor of the Third Reich.
The play's setup adds a comedic spin as a means of estranging the viewer. Instead of government politics, we deal with shady vegetable business men. When the cauliflower trust in Chicago suffers economical pressure, they need someone to get their business going again. Enter Arturo Ui and his muscle Ernesto Roma (Michael Feast), who are keen to rise up from petty criminals to rub shoulders with the influential men of the city. William Gaunt's Dogsborough, like his real life equivalent Reichs president Paul von Hindenburg, is a resigned man lured into corruption by the promise of money and power.
From lush costumes, effective lighting and atmospheric set – this production is slick throughout. This visual feast is welcome, as the show has quite a slow start and exposition and character introductions take up a while. The language (in a gorgeous translation by George Tabori) is melodious, sometimes lulling, and the text is often relentless and refuses to simplify the matter. Luckily, everyone is in for a terrifying payoff. The more you know about German history from that time, the better this payoff will be.
Ripe with references to Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth, the play exposes how political power and performance always go hand in hand. Political narratives are made by people, and it's the responsibility of theatre makers to smash these narratives, to pick them apart and expose their artificiality if they are harmful. This comes together best in the flower shop, which uses Goethe's famous Faust scene to explain the annexation of Austria to Germany. Here Ui woes his Gretchen Betty Dullfoot while David Sturzaker's disconcertingly chirpy Givola distracts her husband. Lizzy McInnery plays the brittle Lady Anne-like character as a great foil to Henry Goodman's smarmy Ui.
Goodman's scene with Keith Baxter's Shakespearean actor is a highlight of the show. When Ui decides to improve his public performance they stumble through the famous Julius Caesar speech "Friends, Romans, countrymen" and the audience rejoices in watching this buffoon (and the terrific clown Goodman).
The conclusion of play was probably the single most terrifying ten minutes I've ever spent in a theatre. I assume that it was not simply my German guilt, but when Ui stands on a high, red platform passionately talking about expanding the vegetable business, I am forced to watch through tears while Brecht's texts forces me to laugh. It's a cruel experience and is owed to Jonathan Church's clever direction as well as Brecht's thieving, didactic genius.