Monday, February 09, 2009

Theatre: "The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui"

A quick note on this… it is a play by Berthold Brecht, telling the story of Hitler's rise as though it were that of a Chicago mobster, performed before Chistmas in the Abbey, under the direction of Jimmy Fay. | saw this before, many years ago (also directed by Jimmy Fay), in a very different production. The play has more resonance now – as the economy tanks, there is that sense that maybe we are on the brink of an abyss like that which spawned Hitler. There was a definite feeling of uneasiness as the play begins with Chicago's Cauliflower Trust drawing a FAIL graph of their profits and realising that they face bankruptcy.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Ui is, of course, the star of this show. In some respects his performance echoes Chaplin in The Great Dictator, but in other ways he seems almost like a character in a Warner Brothers cartoon. He also communicates this sense of emotional neediness, almost as though his rise to power is driven by a need for love and respect. The physicality of his performance is also rather striking. In the early part of the play, he appears so curled up as to suggest a physical deformity to match his spiritual malaise. This is something of a staple in narrative fiction (viz. Ugly Stepsisters, Shakespeare's King Richard III, etc.) but is nevertheless somewhat distasteful, as those of us who are munters and yet sensitive and caring people will vouch. As the play rolls on, though, Ui uncurls. His apparent spinal deformity is merely psychological, and is healed as he achieve the power and respect he craves.

Like the previous production, the play does rather hinge on the relationship between Ui and Roma (with Roma being the analogue for SA leader and old Hitler ally Ernst Röhm). As in real life, Roma (played wonderfully by Aidan Kelly) changes from old ally to liability, and so he dies in a thuggish night of the long knives, with Ui turned against his old pal by his sinister new side-kick Givola/Goebbels (played by the equally sinister Karl Shiels). Although at one level it is one lot of thugs killing another, it still comes across as a miserable and even tragic event.

There was one odd thing about the end. The last line, delivered by the narrator* said something fairly anodyne about how this story is not just a work of history, with the womb that bore Hitler still being fertile. Apparently this is more usually rendered in English as "The bitch that bore him is still in heat", something much more visceral. I hope that as our economies collapse that people do not find themselves embracing new analogues of the past's failed ideologies.

One final thing - while checking something for this, I was reminded of the set. It was one of those bare-stage johnnies the avant garde theatre types love, except that they had cow carcasses hanging on hooks all around it. Nice.

This is my second stab at writing about this play; for the first, click here

* The narrator was played by the Ugandan actor George Seremba, who was himself once machine-gunned by the agents of one of his country's dictators.

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