The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Bertolt Brecht, translated by Ralph Manheim
Lyric, Hammersmith
(2008)

Lucian Msamati ar Arturo Ui

The idea of re-setting Brecht's parable about the rise of Hitler in a different time and place seems eminently sensible. This is such a universal story that it should gain new meaning in a different context.

This version, directed by David Farr and created with the assistance of its leading man Lucian Msamati, doesn't quite manage that.

It looks African, while retaining Brechtian sensibilities, which is a great start. However, the messages become too mixed for the anticipated broadside on the obvious targets, either a former leader of Uganda or a more recent incumbent in Msamati's home country of Zimbabwe, to be realised.

The look created by Ti Green is right, with the actors dressed in contemporary African chic, Ui himself starting with a base level of blood-red string vest and matching ear studs on to which are imposed military tops and presidential regalia.

The actors are located in a shallow sandpit with no more than a few crates and chairs for props. The accents are African too, but the location as discussed has not moved.

This gives us is a play by an East German turned American, set in Chicago during the Prohibition Era, with African overtones, directed by an Englishman.

Msamati is a pocket-sized bull of a man, and as such well cast as a megalomaniacal dictator. He sets his mind on capturing the cauliflower market of Chicago, represented by a comic quintet of nervous directors, happily strutting over anybody who gets in his way.

The first half has many of Brecht's hallmarks with scenes announced and simple staging by an ensemble.

The cauliflower traders are worried about failing markets and try to enlist the assistance of Joseph Mydell's octogenarian Dogsborough. He is as good as Ui is bad but, ultimately, temptation is temptation and he reluctantly succumbs to a deal that is too good to be true.

Others are not so lucky, their opposition ended by bullets. This even eventually extends to Ui's loyal lieutenant, bullying Roma played by Ariyon Bakare.

In the second half, the influences become more diverse, with Shakespeare the most consistent. The gangster becomes Richard III by killing a man to get his wife, Susan Salmon's Betty Dulfeet. He is then haunted by the bloody, Banquo-like ghost of Roma and eulogies to Julius Caesar are also not too far off.

By the end, what might have been an African condemnation of a totalitarian madman or a representative of too many of them, as the jaunty dance music and ambience had suggested, becomes a more routine adaptation of the play, admittedly with variants.

The ensemble maintains the pace and attention throughout the 2½ hours but location is a problem, muddied by the different influences.

There are high points. The pick is when Mydell, now playing an effete actor, gives Ui lessons in posture that quickly turns to goose-stepping. Msamati is also good in mad mode, although this is used sparingly.

The African setting only comes into play in the final speech when after conquering Chicago and moving on to Cicero, our madman names the places where he wishes to make his mark, and every one is in Africa.

On one level, as a novel production of a Brecht classic, this is an enjoyable evening. On another, it represents a missed opportunity to do what Max Stafford-Clark did so effectively when Out of Joint made Idi Amin into Macbeth, by doing so illuminating both stories.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher