The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
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Lenny Henry is excellent in Brecht's Hitler satire, updated for the age of Trump
Hey, you know who Donald Trump is a bit like? Wait for it... wait for it... brace yourself... that Donald Trump… he’s a bit like... HITLER. Buuuuuuuurn.
Not this publication’s thoughts, I hasten to add, but those of Bruce Norris, the scabrous US playwright – most famous for his Pulitzer-winning, West End smash ‘Clybourne Park’. His new version of Bertolt Brecht’s satire on Hitler’s rise to power is so on-the-nose it basically punches you in the face shouting TRUMP IS LIKE HITLER!!! TRUMP IS LIKE HITLER!!!
Sometimes this première production is funny and relatively subtle, such as when Depression-era Chicago mob boss Arturo Ui – played by the redoubtable Lenny Henry – answers an unrelated question with a self-absorbed rant about how the local newspapers are covering him. At other times it is A Bit Much, notably the speech where he pledges to build a wall to keep immigrants out (a subject never explored in any further detail). Ultimately ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ is a fairly specific allegory for Hitler’s rise, e.g. Ui’s right-hand-man Ernesto Roma directly corresponds to Ernst Röhm, and doesn’t really have anything beyond the very superficial to say about Trump.
But Norris’s fizzily OTT jabs at his own president are enjoyably excessive, their gratuitousness half the run. And Henry is the perfect counterweight – the erstwhile comic plays Ui as a big, still, intimidating guy with a gluey Bronx accent, not trying to frantically steal scenes but instead offering a compelling, darkly zen core to them. He can still get the laughs, but at this stage in his acting career doesn’t need them, and he’s a balance to much of the cartoony madness around him. He has Trump’s hulking frame and bluffing populism, but sensibly avoids imitation.
At the risk of being an old bore, I’d love to have seen both Henry and the script in a more, y’know, Brechtian production. Director Simon Evans and team have transfigured the Donmar into a cabaret-seated, speakeasy-style set-up, complete with lashings of audience interaction, the cast singing pop songs, even a functioning on-set bar. To be frank it’s a bit reminiscent of hipster cash extraction experience Secret Cinema, which is fine but maybe feels a bit against the righteous spirit of the whole thing. There is a jokey reference to excessive Donmar ticket prices at the start, when actually they’re pretty reasonable, but the evening feels naggingly posh, comfortable entertainment for the elites that Trump rallied against, however hypocritically.