There’s been plenty written recently about the value of satire in effecting political change, asking whether the form has lost its bite. One question seems to hang above it all: if satire were enough to bring down a leader, would a Cheetos-coloured man still be sitting in the White House? There’s no shortage of mockery of the current leader of the free world, but little seems to stick.
Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui tells the story of a small-time gangster who heavies his way to a position of absolute power within the vegetable trade and city politics, using evasion and violent coercion. It’s a gripping piece of crime fiction with plenty of bloodshed, betrayal, corruption, twists and turns. But it’s also a meticulously crafted allegory for the rise of Adolf Hitler, and a satire made of more incisive stuff than anything you’ll see on Saturday Night Live.
Of course, it wasn’t Brecht’s play that brought down the Nazi regime, but by transporting the rise of Hitler to the capitalist world of Chicago, he was able to explain the inexplicable.
This Sydney Theatre Company production directed by artistic director Kip Williams, with Hugo Weaving in the title role and a new adaptation by Tom Wright, isn’t so much concerned with explaining how Hitler came to power, but explaining how democratic systems can be quickly compromised and fascism can flourish.
Weaving is nothing short of astonishing in the central role. He’s a ruthlessly driven figure right from the start – always threatening to explode and unleash terror – absolutely Shakespearean in scale. But the performance evolves gorgeously as he gains more control of his public figure (a scene in which Mitchell Butel plays a foppish theatre director offering presentation tips drawn straight from Shakespeare is a comedic highlight).
Williams employs extensive live video, with camera operators moving around the stage relaying close-up footage to a giant screen at the back. Williams has used video before, but he refines the execution here. Not only is the cinematography moody and frequently beautiful, it fits perfectly with the Brechtian style – we can see the camera operators on stage, deconstructing and exposing the mechanism of film and theatre, and how public figures can be crafted through the medium of film.
All of this unfolds on Robert Cousins’ set, which is somewhere between low-budget Hollywood soundstage and dodgy gangster hideout. Like Wright’s adaptation, it’s not set in any particular time or place but has enough echoes of Sydney (in his first scene Ui is reading today’s Daily Telegraph – the ball tampering scandal cover graced opening night), melded with film noir and crime flicks of the '80s to feel immediately accessible. Stefan Gregory’s score, with touches of The Godfather in its operatic sweep, builds delicious tension throughout the entire play.
Williams has assembled an enviable cast; although Weaving is out front, the strength of the ensemble is a huge asset. Not only are they technically brilliant, but most are required to be on their game for almost all of the play’s intermission-less two hours and ten minutes.
Ursula Yovich, Colin Moody and Ivan Donato all bring distinctive flair as Ui’s gangster associates, while Butel, Monica Sayers, Charles Wu, Brent Hill and Tony Cogin show their versatility. Anita Hegh is heartbreaking as Betty Dullfleet, a woman who finds herself compromising in ways she thought impossible, and Peter Carroll brings an enormous sense of regret as Dogsborough, the politician whose first slip-up in a decades-long career is the catalyst for bloodshed.
While there’s still a big gap between the rise of the Third Reich and the limited rise of far-right groups and ultra-conservative leaders around the western world right now, the politics of fear and rhetoric employed is similar. And there are plenty of people considered moderate who are not only tolerating but employing and insidiously legitimising hateful, divisive and potentially violence-inciting rhetoric.
This is one of the most ingenious things about Tom Wright’s adaptation: he’s faithful to Brecht but gently slides in touches of Australian rhetoric (and John Farnham) from recent years – about deciding who comes here and the circumstances under which they come, and fixers, and moral dieticians, and lifters and leaners – asking whether we’ve been hoodwinked by a similar brand of politics of divisive fear. There are things unfolding that we’ve seen unfold before.
Well, talk about a stern warning.
Fiercely political theatre is frequently just preaching to the converted, but in this case it seems a few of the right people might just be in attendance. There’s a decent number of powerful moderate and centre-right people who see STC productions, and they’re exactly who could do with this kind of a warning: that it’s genuinely dangerous to play with a certain kind of politics and to accept any kind of extremism. That maybe it’s not a great idea to stir up fear of 'African gangs' to achieve a political purpose. And maybe you shouldn't use your position as a former prime minister to launch a book written by a powerful individual advocating for a ban on Muslim immigration.
For the rest of us, who don’t have that degree of power, it’s still wonderfully entertaining and shocking theatre. And it does exactly what satire should.