Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Hugo Weaving as Arturo Ui
in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Program cover photo supplied

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tom Wright.  Sydney Theatre Company and UBS at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, March 21 - April 28, 2018.

Director – Kip Williams; Set Designer – Robert Cousins; Costume Designer – Marg Horwell; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer and Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory; Cinematographer – Justine Kerrigan; Fight Director – Nigel Poulton; Assistant Director – Alastair Clark; Voice and Text Coach – Charmian Gradwell

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 9

If you ever thought Bertolt Brecht was getting a bit passé, even somewhat historic, Kip Williams and especially his translator Tom Wright, in this production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui will shake you out of your 21st Century middle-class complacency.  You can’t escape the terrifying epilogue speech, done here by the risen-from-the-dead figure of the honest but forcibly-compromised politician Dogsborough, spoken with such depth of feeling by one of our greatest veteran actors, Peter Carroll.

In the translation, [ ] a sign appears after the final demagogue speech by Ui, saying “On 11 March 1938 Hitler marches into Austria.  An election under the Nazi terror results in a 98% vote for Hitler”. The epilogue reads:

Therefore learn how to see and not to gape.
To act instead of talking all day long.
The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape –
The womb he crawled from still is going strong.

Tom Wright’s uncompromising translation ends after similar couplets:

The bitch that bore Arturo Ui is still in heat.

Throughout this script, more transformed rather than merely translated, Ui is made to represent all the political thugs who threaten and actually kill all who oppose the essential lie of their offer of ‘protection’.  It’s a protection racket, of course.  Hitler used the ancient ploy by creating fear in Germans’ minds of economic disaster, loss of nationhood status, and finally scapegoating Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals.  Of course, in his play Brecht used the mafia controlled cauliflower trade in Chicago as his parallel to the rise of Hitler.

Tom Wright has brought Brecht up to date by turning Brecht’s particular into our general situation, from the worst cases like the treatment of the Rohingas in Myanmar, to our own politicians’ just announced Gang of 20 setting us up to fear infinitely rising electricity prices unless our government subsidises new coal mines and builds new coal-burning power stations, instead of encouraging renewable resources for power production. 

Wright’s text makes you think of these things by subtly incorporating references into the speeches written by Brecht – and in doing so, supported by exactly the production style that Brecht was seeking, Wright has injected life back into Brecht, however jaded we may have thought he had become.  The middle-class audience in the aptly corporately-sponsored named Roslyn Packer Theatre were amused by the line in Arturo’s election victory speech, beginning “We will decide …..”, as John Howard’s ghost appeared in our memories, stirred by Hugo Weaving’s powerful populism.  Laughter was stopped in its tracks by our recognition of the truth in Peter Carroll’s final line.

Then there was an almost revolutionary feeling in the explosion of applause for a play so well done and of such social import.  The Monash Forum had better take notice – but they will surely keep their eyes neatly blinded, and probably accuse the Sydney Theatre Company of being ‘lefties’ as if that sort of insult is all that’s needed to shut the conversation down.

True to Brechtian principles, every element of the staging of his play is open for our inspection, with the wonderful addition of cleverly designed live video.  Just to list cinematographer Justine Kerrigan in the credits is not enough.  The skills of her team – camera operators Philip Charles and Daniel Boules, video supervisor Dave Bergman and mixer Jason Jones – bring their parts as performers in the play up to the standard of this team of best Australian actors in the cast.  Hugo Weaving, deservedly, is the publicity front-runner for a quite extraordinary bravura performance, while everyone else in their many roles equal his strength of characterisation and contact with the audience – at long range and in close-up.

This has to be the very best production of this master-work that I can imagine, proving the place of Brecht as the Shakespeare of the 20th Century, just as relevant today and, I suspect, for the next four centuries as Shakespeare has been since his death four centuries ago.

The question for the future is, How Resistible is the Rise of Arturo Ui?  Will we just keep talking all day?  Or if we take action, how do we do that without starting World War III?

Cast: (alphabetical order)

Mitchell Butel – Clark / Theatre Director / Court Appointed Physician
Peter Carroll – Dogsborough
Tony Cogin – Ignatius Dullfleet / Maulbeer / Hook / 1st Millstreamian
Ivan Donato – Giri / Young Dogsborough
Anita Hegh – Betty Dullfleet / Carruthers / Deller / Defence Attorney
Brent Hill – Ragg / Gaffles / Gazillo / Prosecutor / Short Man / Priest
Colin Moody – Roma
Monica Sayers – Dockdaisy / Counsel / 2nd Millstreamian
Hugo Weaving – Arturo Ui
Charles Wu – Inna / Schussel / Mullet / Waiter
Ursula Yovich – Givola / Magistrate