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BWW Review: THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI, Donmar Warehouse

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Written by Bertolt Brecht during World War II, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui serves as a parable for the accession of the Far Right. Today, this play proves chillingly current. Wholly immersive, Simon Evans' production breaks down the fourth wall as the titular (and all too familiar) character endeavours to build one up.

Germany becomes Chicago and Adolf Hitler gangster Arturo Ui, as we witness his sociopathic rise to power. The Donmar Warehouse is transformed into a sleek speakeasy, home to the mobsters. Set is wheeled on and off, with the only permanent fixtures a piano and dropdown microphone for the narrator-come-fool-come-ringmaster. "Nature Boy" and other modern musical interludes set the scene as characters are introduced. Surrounded on all sides by the audience, we too are a part of this world, Arturo's world, who boasts that this crowd is "the biggest ever".

The parallels between Arturo and Donald Trump are pinpointed in Bruce Norris's adaptation. There are some obvious nods, all using only 'the best words', of course. A particularly well-placed "nasty woman" will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It's a scene almost out of Shakespeare, mirroring Richard's wooing of Anne over her husband's grave in Richard III. This is no coincidence, as Brecht pays heavy homage to his predecessor of political plots. The blank verse speaks volumes, though some parts could have been cut by Norris in this updating. An already dragging second act is only slowed down by a mundane ghost scene.

Unlike Hamlet or Caesar, Lenny Henry does not speak the speech as trippingly off the tongue. And rightly so. There is an awkwardness, a heaviness to his Arturo. Henry utterly commands the space, a menacing and mesmerising figure. Arturo does learn how to conduct himself, in a scene which draws laughs and gasps. Giles Terera impresses as faithful second-in-command Ernesto Roma, so much so that you'll want to see him much more of him. And you won't have to "Wait For It"; Terera will play Aaron Burr in the upcoming London production of Hamilton.

Philip Cumbus oozes venom in every syllable as creepy Clark, while Guy Rhys knocks out some genius one-liners as Giuseppe Givola. Evans also addresses the inequality of female roles in this production. Lucy Ellinson makes a memorable turn as the jester Emanuele Giri, playing it fast, loose and free, while Lucy Eaton is the wicked but doomed Dockdaisy. The performers welcome us, interacting with the audience before each act. It's a Brechtian staple, but it also plays a crucial role in preparing us for what is to come.

Audience participation is central to the structure of this production. From a simple clap chant at the start to giving witness testimony, the audience is constantly reminded that they are part of this world. This builds to a metatheatrical moment in the final scene. As Arturo gives a rallying speech, each member of the audience is asked where their allegiance lies. Will you stand up and be counted, or stand by and let this happen?

In an earlier court scene involving an audience member, the prosecution denounces this "cheap and obvious theatrical device" of letting them speak, giving them a voice. Some may brand this ending in a similar light. I would disagree. As I left the show, I heard the following remark from an older audience member: "We should definitely come back! I'd like to do the final scene again." In this dramatic world, they will get to play it out differently. But in the real world, there are no do-overs. And this lesson rings all too true for the US post-election and the UK on the brink of Brexit.

While slow paced at points, the ending hits home. You will leave moved and motivated; to do otherwise is almost irresistible.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Donmar Warehouse until 17 June

Picture credit: Helen Maybanks


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