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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Bertolt Brecht
Chichester Festival Theatre
Duchess Theatre

Henry Goodman Credit: Manuel Harlan
Henry Goodman Credit: Manuel Harlan
Henry Goodman Credit: Manuel Harlan

Brecht can be fun. The German playwright has a reputation for political earnestness but with this 1941 play (first staged only 17 years later after the playwright's early death) he proves that allegory can be a barrel of laughs.

That is if you have a liking for a very dark comedy that attacks Fascism as incessantly as Arturo Ui and his cohorts fight their enemies in Prohibition-era Chicago.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui dresses up an unflattering portrayal of Adolf Hitler in the guise of a comic gangster caper set in Chicago during the reign of Al Capone.

In the leading role, Henry Goodman is so good that he must undoubtedly add this to his eight Olivier nominations, quite possibly garnering a third statue. In the early scenes, he plays a greasy workman from Brooklyn with a nasal whine.

With the assistance of an Actor played by Keith Baxter, the would-be dictator changes every facet of his persona in a scene of Chaplinesque proportions. His speech and body language slowly grow to a perfect depiction of Hitler, culminating a terrifying nonsense speech that will chill the heart.

Along the way, as things go wrong there are even hints of a connection with Richard III, both in wooing a rival's widow and confrontation with a reincarnated victim.

Before that, there is much comedy in Alistair Beaton's racy new version, which at its best utilises verse that could almost be mistaken for Shakespeare's had the Bard written hard-boiled thrillers about private detectives on the far side of the Atlantic.

The humour is particularly prevalent as the outsider begins to muscle his way into the endemically corrupt cauliflower business.

He does this with great assistance from Michael Feast as hitman Ernie Roma but less enthusiastically the old Mayor Dogsborough, William Gaunt both dignified and vulnerable as he sews and then reaps the seeds of his own weakness.

The rise is often like a screwball version of an Edward G. Robinson gangster movie, anyone getting in the way of progress meeting an unfortunate but mercifully swift death.

While Goodman bestrides this production like a colossus, his fellows contribute fully to one of the best productions seen in London this autumn. As well as those names, Benny Young, David Sturzaker and Joe McGann give nice depictions of hoodlums with a wafer-thin veneer of respectability, while Lizzie McInerney represents the gentler sex combining distaste for the crab-like dictator with just a modicum of fascination at his success.

It would be lovely to say that messianic megalomaniacs disappeared with Hitler, but the world is not like that. This ensures that Arturo Ui still has much to say to contemporary audiences and Jonathan Church's well-judged revival is a delight that will not only give theatregoers a bleak history lesson but also make them shiver at the inhumanity of this pestilential breed of sub-human being.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher