Sixty-three-year-old Henry Goodman is one of those familiar, respected stage stalwarts who has never quite hit the big time in the full on celebrity sense. The punters who flocked to see the stage version of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ or the Old Vic’s recent ‘The Winslow Boy’ no doubt nodded reassured at his face on the posters, but his name alone isn’t enough to guarantee box-office glory – the man still needs to work for it.
And he works bloody hard in the first revival of a play by German pioneer Bertolt Brecht to hit the West End in decades. Goodman’s clownish, psychotic, pitiable and terrifying title turn is the best stage performance I’ve seen this year.
‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ isn’t Brecht’s best play, but it is one of his more accessible ones, a dark allegorical comedy about Hitler’s rise to power set in a mob-controlled ’30s Chicago. An exiled Brecht scribbled it down over three weeks in 1941 while waiting for his US visa to come through and if it had been staged in neutral America that year it might have been incendiary – but it wasn’t actually performed until 1958. The epilogue presents it as a warning from history, but it’s essentially a piece of political propaganda that exists to tell us that Hitler Was a Bad Man – probably the only historical fact that even Michael Gove is satisfied we all know.
It’s heavy-handed, basically, but the hammed up gangster allegory is fun – kingpin Ui is running a cauliflower racket, of all things – and the title role is an absolute plum of a part.
He may have borrowed De Niro’s accent, but the combover-sporting, toothbrush-moustached Ui simply is Hitler. But in Goodman’s tremendously physical performance, he’s Hitler as a vicious, contemptible little clown, an awkward, angry little man with no neck who scuttles across the floor like an insect, puffing himself up in an insecure parody of statesmanship. He’s the sinister reflection of Chaplin’s Great Dictator, in an equally sublime performance: the scene in which Goodman is trying to psyche himself up and becomes scared of his own piano is as wonderful a bit of physical business as you’ll see in a theatre.
The play drops a gear when Goodman is offstage, but Jonathan Church’s production is a thoroughly classy one, and makes tremendous use of the Duchess’s intimate space.
Strong all round, but like Nazi Germany itself, it’s really all about one man.
By Andrzej Lukowski