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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: ridiculous, yet uproariously comedic

Jonathan Church’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is an evening of sinister satire.

Everyone loves a bit of historical parody. Whether it is Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder or Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, we relish in being able to ridicule historical figures warped into wonderful caricatures. And who better to be ridiculed than the figures who once almost destroyed human races, those who once held the fate of the world in their hands and were intent on crumpling their iron fists? Where are their voices of protest, their terror machines, their censorship now? It is precisely this delight we get from Jonathan Church’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which takes Adolph Hitler, one of history’s most sinister warlords, and turns him into a farce.

The analogy is simple: instead of Germany in the struggling Weimar Republic, it is the depression in 1930s Chicago. In the place of the industrialists running the country are vegetable sellers trying to pull themselves out of hard times – and of course, as the industrialists turned to Hitler and his SA for support against their enemies, the Cauliflower Corporation turns to Arturo Ui and his gangsters for protection.

Dynamic and vigorous are the words that come to mind when I recall Henry Goodman’s highly physical performance as Arturo Ui, an absurd small-time gangster who demands respect in classic ‘small man syndrome’ fashion from his mocking peers. His baffoonish gesticulations (mimicking Hitler’s during his speeches) and Muttley-style mutterings draw a constant hum of laughter from the audience as he jerks and gabbles in a cartoonish manner around the stage.

The physicality of his performance projects the play’s comedy to soaring heights in a scene where he takes elocution and posture lessons, as he begins to adopt the high-toed Nazi march whilst giving a Chicago-accented rendition of Julius Caesar’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech. Some may view his interpretation as too ridiculous and exaggerated. Goodman even takes it as far as sucking his thumb and ducking to the ground at loud noises. However, I think he executes perfectly Brecht’s intention to expose Hitler as “a shmuck, a nobody”. You are compelled to ask yourself, how did a madman like this ever gain credibility?

Like Arturo’s character, the play fluctuates from being deeply sinister to uproariously comedic. Despite the darker themes, there are times when the production is also a wonderfully light theatrical experience. The talented cast sprinkle the scenes with song and live music and deliver Brecht’s blank verse with beautiful Shakespearean eloquence and rhythm. However, there is nothing about Church’s portrayal of the analogy which is subtle: Arturo sports the square moustache, he wears the red arm bands and the characters ‘heil!’ the Nazi salute.

This may be a cause for criticism. Perhaps the audience should be challenged more to identify these parallels? But when Arturo gives his final dramatic podium speech about unifying vegetable sellers all over America to the accompaniment of Wagner’s Parsifal, the hyperbole of it all is actually just another cause for comedy. We cannot believe that he is simply talking about zucchinis, broccoli, tomatoes and celery, so Church should be applauded for throwing subtly out the window.

The characters themselves also represent key personages of Hitler’s Cinderella story: Hindenburg, Ernst Röhm and Göbbles. I would recommend brushing up on your Nazi history so that you can recognize them and not feel inferior to the socialists in the audience.

You may think an article on historical parody rather tasteless around the time of Remembrance Day, but remembering is exactly what this production makes us do, as we watch sinister events unfold. Brecht’s plays have always had a deeply didactic message, aiming to ensure that no audience member leaves without reflecting on the moral lessons of the play.

There are many moments when the actors implore the audience to fight back, to stand up and end this reign of terror. We think back on how we could have avoided such tragedy (after all, it is called The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui). The production points a stern wagging finger at the audience, reminding us that it is our duty to stand up to injustice, which in our dangerous world may start as the most minuscule of molehills and grow to the most monstrous of mountains.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is playing at the Duchess Theatre until December 7. Get your tickets here:

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