Making the Best of Brecht

Henry Goodman is outstanding as Arturo Ui, the German playwright's terrifying caricature of Hitler

Anne McElvoy

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is convoluted, unashamedly didactic and brimful of arcane references to the role of Germany’s industrialists and landowners in allowing the emergence of Hitler and his murderous bootboys. This school-primer quality to a play written in 1941, in the Finnish part of Brecht’s exile (later recalled in a poem as “changing countries more often than we changed our shoes”) has left it rarely performed. Since a notable incarnation with Simon Callow in 1978, it has been relegated to the file of rarely aired Brechtiana. 

Now Henry Goodman, one of the few British actors with a lively interest in German literature, has donned the garb of the misfit Chicago gangster, tormenting the cowardly denizens of cauliflower trade in the extended allegory of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Jonathan Church’s production (part of the Chichester Festival and transferring to London’s Duchess Theatre) is a grimly comical tour de force which makes the best of Brecht’s satire and anger. A cracking reworking of George Tabori’s translation by Alistair Beaton smoothes away its repetitiveness, while allowing the lilt of the German parody to shine through: “No violence, just emphasis,” as Ui’s heavily armed persuaders would put it.

None of this would have been possible without an outstanding performance by Goodman. We meet him as a nervy, self-flagellating wreck, so ill co-ordinated that he turns an attempt at a soulful piano solo into a scene of clumsy pratfalls worthy of the Marx brothers. The physical impersonation channels Bruno Ganz in the film Downfall, complete with manic, jerky movements and the hand-trembling behind his back. But there is no doubting the monstrosity behind the humour.

In Simon Higlett’s design, a halting Ui speaks first from makeshift balconies and later, having bullied, beaten and shot dissenters into silence, from a raised platform reminiscent of the Nuremberg Trials, while his thugs run up a gangway into the audience, leaving no doubt of the wider public’s complicity in Hitler’s elevation. Goodman unleashes the full, spitting, sweating force of fear-mongering so intense that we ask ourself when (or whether) we would have said, “Enough.”

The supporting cast, from “good old Dogsborough” (William Gaunt) representing  the doddery President Hindenburg who disdained the parvenu but somehow ended up appointing him Reichskanzler, to Michael Feast, the sensual, sadistic Roma (Ernst Röhm) all shine. It’s easy to forget that Brecht, despite his reputation as a dour Marxist, was disruptively funny and a fan of Charlie Chaplin: the scene in which a ham actor (Keith Baxter) instructs a tone-deaf Ui how to recite Shakespeare is a delight of careful mistiming and mangled classics. 

This critic has no patience with those who say that the Nazi party bit-players are hard to follow. It’s surely not too much to ask us to read up on the ghastly who’s who of Team Adolf — and an invaluable bit of back-story filling if you’re taking a 21st-century teenager along. My only niggle is that the production keeps the snappy Tabori translation at the end, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again”, as opposed to Brecht’s more poetic image of a fertile world-womb, spawning evils. We leave, as we should, with a shiver, but a large dose of pleasure before it. Bravo to the Chichester festival for first staging the production — and to Mr Goodman, the finest, greasiest Ui in a generation.

Meanwhile, in an era of 14th-century miscreants, the sainted David Tennant, adored by one half of the audience for having being in Dr Who and Broadchurch and the other for his excellent Hamlet, takes on Richard II for the RSC at Stratford. 

Tennant’s Richard is a bi-polar, bi-curious flibbert, reflecting his history as the child-king, crowned aged 10 — a damaged psyche ruling by caprice and petulance. Truly, it’s hard to imagine how he got through the Peasants’ Revolt in one piece.

Physically, he is an extraordinary presence, giddily camp (lingering kisses and pawing at his acolytes) with unkempt flowing locks, a bit like hippy Neil in the old TV student comedy, The Young Ones. I found this flounciness distracting, though there is no denying Tennant’s singular presence, or his ability to turn a line with a breathy pout or odd inflection. When he holds out the crown to Bolingbroke, the gesture has all the stroppy reluctance of a boy relinquishing sweets to a bully.  

Nigel Lindsay’s Bolingbroke is a rough-handed power-obsessive, John of Gaunt is played with a fine blend of aged irony and utter despair at the goings-on of Michael Pennington, whose consistency offsets the erratic quality of Tennant’s performance (better in the second half of the action than his skittish first).

In fairness, Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s more fractured plays, constantly undercutting our conviction as to which side we should be on. The stygian staging, with a brutal metal platform moving up and down as Richard’s fortunes rise and fall, adds visual menace, and Tim Mitchell’s otherworldly lighting is mesmerising. Doran’s directorial pace in charting the blessed, bloody, messy plot of this England doesn’t flag. But the king’s the thing and even the talented Tennant looks a bit unsure about how to get a grip on this one.

From kings to cabbages. Sir Arnold Wesker, the father of kitchen-sink drama (a term he dislikes), has seen a vogue for revivals with a well-received Chicken Soup with Barley and now Roots, the second part of the same trilogy, written in 1959, at the Donmar. The kitchen sink is in full view during the action, symbolically chaining the lugubrious Mrs Bryant (Linda Bassett) to her life of domestic dreariness, measured out by the arrival times of infrequent buses and vegetable preparation. 

Beatie (a luminous Jessica Raine) returns to this stultifying Norfolk nest from a racy existence in London as girlfriend to the preachy socialist, Ronnie. Honesty compels me to say that Wesker’s plays aren’t the paciest. The time hung heavy as the Bryant family squabbled about the cost of electricity required to bake a sponge cake and painstakingly exemplified rural alienation. But the story artfully grasps the ritual nature of irreconcilable family tensions  and the pain and waste of the intellectual rift between classes. “Writers don’t write thinkin’ we can understand,” explains impressionable Beatie, “nor the painters don’t paint expectin’ us to be interested — that they don’t.” Six decades on, I fear she’d still be disappointed.

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