In 1941, while living in exile, German playwright Bertolt Brecht (assisted by his close collaborator, Margarete Steffin) wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a stinging satire of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Incorporating references to various Shakespearean works, including Richard III and Julius Caesar as well as infamous American mobster Al Capone, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a piece that Brecht described as “a gangster play that would recall certain events familiar to us all”. While that statement certainly resonated in 1958, when Brecht’s play was first performed, it feels as timely today as ever before. This is a play that examines the environment that nurtures the rise to power of treacherous demagogues. To use Brecht’s own words, “The play is not so much an attack on Hitler, but rather upon the complacency of the people who were able to resist him, but didn’t.” With an adaptation by former Sydney Theatre Company associate director Tom Wright, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is now playing at STC’s Roslyn Packer Theatre in a new production, directed by Kip Williams.
Arturo Ui (Hugo Weaving) is a sleazy figure of the underworld whose name no longer attracts the attention it once did. No longer interested in the fruits of ordinary criminal pursuits, Ui sets his sights on gaining real, legitimate power. He approaches Dogsborough (Peter Carroll), a corrupt senior cabinet minister inspired by Paul von Hindenburg, the Weimar Republic president who was integral to Hitler’s rise to power. Ui uses his knowledge of the respected politician’s secret corruption to exploit him and work his own way into politics, bringing with him his vicious gang of thugs.
Meanwhile, in order to create a persona palatable to the general public, Ui seeks the assistance of a theatre director (Mitchell Butel) to learn how to walk and talk like an archetypal figure of authority. Once he has achieved his desired level of power, his ability – and total willingness – to wreak havoc on the community and annihilate the foundations of a democratic society are terrifyingly apparent. Those now forced to yield to his domination are left to question what, if anything, can stop him. More than that, however, they (and we) are provoked to contemplate how such an insidious person could ever be allowed to elevate to such a position in which they acquire an unfettered capacity to control institutions.
Williams’ realisation of the text has resulted in a remarkable production that feels precisely the type of theatrical work capable of prompting the kind of social change Brecht aimed to accomplish as an epic theatre practitioner. It is powerful, wonderfully contemporary and tremendously performed.
In the title role, Weaving gives a performance that may well deliver him another Helpmann Award. His brutal gangster-meets-seedy politician portrayal of the character is commanding and appropriately evokes our revulsion, as his ruthlessness escalates throughout the piece, ultimately revealing a truly monstrous autocrat.
But while Weaving’s master performance is a standout, there’s no weak link in this cast. Carroll convinces in portraying the all-too-familiar superficially earnest and trustworthy politician who succumbs to manipulation; Butel is impressive as the Franz von Papen-esque Clark and prompts the evening’s best laughs as the theatre director vital to Ui’s rebirth in politics; and Ivan Donato is genuinely intimidating as the menacing Giri, the chief thug assisting Ui to rule with an iron fist. Ursula Yovich assumes a number of guises but makes a lasting impression in a chilling moment in which she plays a woman crying out for help. While speaking to the tragedy of the woman’s own plight, it’s a moment that forces consideration of the bigger picture – into what state of catastrophe has the city been allowed to descend? And it would be remiss not to mention Tony Cogin, Anita Hegh, Brent Hill, Colin Moody, Monica Sayers and Charles Wu, all of whom are superb in their individual roles.
One of the most innovative and potent aspects of this production is Williams’ choice to use live video throughout its entire 145 minutes. Not only does it give the piece a fabulous cinematic feel and allow us to further appreciate the finer details of the performances, but is an effective means of drawing attention to the screen drama-esque aspects of politics – of role playing, of acting and speaking in a contrived manner to elicit specific responses from the public, while framing out the truths and realities it’s considered are not in their interest to see. Perhaps, even, it’s a nod to the entertainment we derive from watching political scandals play out on our screens today. Justine Kerrigan’s cinematography throughout is excellent, while Stefan Gregory’s scoring enhances the piece’s cinematic feel. Robert Cousins’ set and Marg Horwell’s costumes beautifully locate Brecht’s play in the contemporary world, and are complemented by striking lighting choices from Nick Schlieper.
STC’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a must-see not only because of Weaving’s exceptional performance, but because Brecht’s text has formed the basis of a magnificent production brimming with worthy ideas. It reminds us that the ascension of indecorous figures to power is not inevitable, but given the tenuousness of the democratic freedoms we enjoy, our timely and decisive intervention is essential.
THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI – SEASON DETAILS
Presented by Sydney Theatre Company
Dates: Playing now until 28 April, 2018
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre