As the saying goes, ‘Art imitates life’. A prime example is The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 allegory for the rise of Adolf Hitler to the position of German Chancellor in 1933. It also applies to this Theatre Works production, for different reasons.
The setting is Chicago in the 1930s. Ui (George Banders) starts out as a small-time criminal in charge of seven men in this era of gangsters such as Al Capone. The men are restless, and maintaining his operation means he needs to find activity for them soon.
His instincts lead him to suspect self-interest in a loan championed by long-serving Chicago city counsellor Dogsborough (Kym Lynch) to the Cauliflower Trust, the city’s peak body for trade in this vegetable. Blackmail gives Ui traction, which he uses to further his influence. Before too long, he’s providing the grocers of Chicago with ‘protection’ … from his own machine-gun toting goons.
I was interested to see how the performance of the play would compare with the version of the text I could obtain beforehand; Ralph Manheim’s translation of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui: A parable play (1976). The play’s front matter makes comment that the translation preserved Brecht’s signature pastiche and parody ‘without diminishing the horror of the real-life Nazi prototypes.’
I found this description accurate; Ui comes across as a calculating opportunist, who having obtained some influence, grows both in stature and thirst for dominion over Chicago. Having achieved that, he begins to expand his empire. As Ui’s opposition is killed or coerced into collaborating from fear of recriminations should they oppose him, I found the text a chilling experience.
Under the direction of Phil Rouse, this production often presents our protagonist in a quite different light. At his first appearance, Ui is a snivelling, uncoordinated buffoon before the Cauliflower Trust, hardly a man with a plan. His awkward posture and gestures continued for almost the entire play, giving him a very un-statesmanlike bearing more akin to The Joker in some of the Batman films.
Banders’ tall orange hair and inexpertly smoothed eye makeup clearly reference a divisive figure of our times: Donald Trump. Other modern influences include a hip-hop introduction with characters krumping and twerking, showing us that this production wants to be as much gangsta as gangster.
The pastiche employed in this production also has some differences from Brecht’s. Rouse seems to draw on cinema, such as a courtroom scene recalling Chicago and another where Ui bumbles through setbacks in a manner reminiscent of The Naked Gun series. Add to this some other attempts at humour, such as one undercutting the significance of Ui killing of one of his closest associates, and we obtain a production big on spectacle and entertainment value, even if touches such as a man in a tree costume seem ill-fitting or jokey additions.
There are some high-stakes machinations in The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, and so we can expect a certain amount of shouting. Some characters overuse this tactic, losing the opportunity to differentiate themselves from the ensemble.
Whilst all performers managed quick-changes into different characters or between scenes, some performances particularly stood out. As Ui’s henchwoman Giri, Ciume Lochner maintained a laugh more malevolent than the text suggested, albeit one suited to her twisted leer through black lipstick. As defense attorney, Kasia Kaczmarek captured Chicago’s last desperate efforts to mobilise its corrupted legal system.
Showing that sometimes less is indeed more, Peter Paltos as Ui’s long-time lieutenant Roma seethed with psychopathic loyalty, posture and countenance projecting readiness for violence. Lynch wrung humour suitable for the production from Dogsborough’s initial hesitancy over placing financial gain above his civic duty.
To ensure that the links between the play and historical events were clear, Brecht’s idea of signs presenting events from Hitler’s rise that related to the upcoming scene was achieved snappily via a video screen. The play features in VCE Theatre Studies Unit 4, and this production will be certainly be a very accessible one for that audience. On the opening night, the humour seemed to go over well in some quarters, and appreciative applause was offered at the play’s conclusion.
The concern I have though relates to the facet of life in the last twenty-something years that this art imitates. In various western nations, public discourse seems to suffer from the amnesia of inconvenience. The Bulletin of August 29 2000 asked “Pauline Hanson, Can the Soufflé Rise Twice?”, a question which ignored sections of the electorate still having the same fears that enabled her first rise. Look now, Senator Hanson is in Federal Parliament, 18 years after losing her lower house seat.
The left in England seemed to think that they didn’t need to spend much effort selling the benefits of EU membership before the vote on Brexit. The vote to leave there is ascribed by some commentators to those on low incomes thumbing their nose at the economic pronouncements of elites, when career politician and UKIP leader Nigel Farage is hardly one of the common folk.
Whilst many commentators have dismissed Donald Trump repeatedly, he has emerged from a large field of Republican hopefuls to contest the presidency of the United States. Despite his barely coherent ramblings, he has a substantial popular appeal to people who feel left behind by the establishment, and think Trump represents their interests. Attacking Trump (or Hanson) has only galvanised support from those who identify with the message offered.
I expected to have a feeling of escalating dread upon witnessing The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, and the lack of this has troubled me. Understanding the appeal of a fanatic in order to negate it requires strategy and persistence. It’s much easier to ridicule a would-be despot on a resistable rise. Whilst this might make some of us feel superior, I suspect that when the ascent becomes inevitable, the laughs will be on us.
Director: Phil Rouse Featuring: George Banders, Ben Clements, Jennifer Innes, Kasia Kaczmarek, Josiah Lulham, Kym Lynch, Tariro Mavondo, Luke Mulquiney, Peter Paltos Set and Costume Designer: Martelle Hunt Associate Set Designer: Shane Thompson Lighting Designers: Rob Sowinski, Bryn Cullen Sound Designer: Jess Keeffe Production Manager: Elizabeth Howells Stage Manager: Lachlan O’Connor Assistant Stage Managers: Katharine Timms, Taylen Furness Producer: Eric Gardiner
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Theatre Works, Acland Street, St. Kilda
Performance: Saturday 27 August 2016 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 10 September 2016
Information and Bookings: www.theatreworks.org.au
Image: Luke Mulquiney & George Banders in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – photo by Ross Waldron
Review: Jason Whyte