Bertolt Brecht called The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui a ‘parable play’ or Parabelstück. It was written in 1941 when he was in exile from Germany. Ui allegorises Hitler’s rise to power, recasting him as a grasping 1930s Chicago gangster, wreaking bloody havoc on the cauliflower trade as he establishes a monopoly that segues into a political career. The setting was intended to make the play’s points about the failure to stem Fascism palatable to an American audience. However, it was neither produced nor published in his lifetime.
Brecht loved the cinema. He was, apparently, a particular fan of Hollywood star, James Cagney, noted for his portrayals of sneering underworld figures. The Sydney Theatre Company production of Ui, which premiered on March 27, makes extensive use of cinematic devices, both as homage and as an alienating technique.
As the audience enters, performers mill about on a soundstage. Costumes hang on a rack; actors prepare for their parts, doing yoga or jogging in their boxers; cinema cameras are clearly positioned in view. The first scene, set in a Chinese restaurant, is played around a circular table, stacked high with dishes and wine bottles. It is simultaneously played on stage and filmed, with the action projected on an enormous screen. The audience is forced to watch the two representational spaces simultaneously. We see the assembled cast, listening to the back room machinations of local businessmen, as we watch the real-time film of the play, close-ups of the actors’ faces taking us right into the moment and disrupting our sense of sitting safely at a distance in the auditorium.
The sometimes dizzying movement between stage and screen renders the familiar strange, and this sense of alienation was one of Brecht’s primary dramatic aims.
This playing with representational planes continues throughout the production. At times, actors soliloquise with their back to the audience or entire scenes are performed in the wings. But they are fully revealed on the screen. The effect is disconcerting. Occasionally, I wondered if some of the scenes were pre-recorded but, as the actors moved from the wings to the stage, it became apparent that the filming is live. In many ways, this toying with different modes of representation, as well as with the divergent temporalities evoked by cinema and stage, is thoroughly Brechtian. Film replaces the fixed viewing position of the theatre audience with the possibility of multiple viewpoints – closeups and aerial shots are both used to good effect. The sometimes dizzying movement between stage and screen renders the familiar strange, and this sense of alienation was one of Brecht’s primary dramatic aims.
The use of film in this production also directly complements the play’s major thrust. Ui asks the audience to critically consider the mechanisms that allowed Hitler’s rise to power. Film was critical in the propagandising of the Third Reich. One only needs to recall Leni Riefenstahl’s coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The cinematic conceit also helps a contemporary audience to understand the dense allusions and intertextuality of Brecht’s writing. In many ways, Ui assumes an audience with immense cultural capital. Parodies and pastiches abound. At a minimum, a working knowledge of both Shakespeare and Goethe are assumed. This production provides an additional set of cultural referents – Dullfleet’s funeral works wonderfully as film noir; the ghostly visitation of Ernesto Roma is rendered laughable as schlock-horror. Overall, these cinema references help to make a contemporary audience feel at home amongst the Brechtian penchant for pastiche, providing a ‘low culture’ take on the ‘high culture’ send-ups which structure so much of the play’s form.
Nevertheless, this juxtaposition of cinema and stage is a dangerous balancing act. At times I felt like I was watching Arturo Ui – The Telemovie, somewhat exhausted by a style poised between a remake of the 1970s BBC series I Claudius and a biopic of Chopper Read. The most challenging aspect of this simultaneous use of stage and screen is the different acting styles required by these mediums; the intimacy required by the camera is inevitably in tension with the larger presence conventionally demanded by the theatre. To expose the seams of these performance genres by forcing them together might be taken as a clever meta-commentary on Brecht’s epic theatre. Often though, I simply wished that the screen had been used more judiciously and that the stage was not so frenetically busy with this constant double layering.
Tom Wright’ translation does a terrific job of updating Ui and making it more directly accessible to a Sydney audience. The context of constant infrastructure projects and corruption is well rehearsed here. The immense class divides in the harbour city are deftly summarised in lines like ‘You blokes from leafy suburbs crack me up’ and droll details such as a character wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘STOP BEING POOR’. At one point, the lyrics to Johnny Farnham’s 1986 hit single You’re the Voice are deployed in a speech so deliciously banal it is hilarious.
In an era of alternative facts, this cinematically inclined production of Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui will win Brecht new fans.
Hugo Weaving plays the immensely demanding lead role of Arturo Ui. He begins the play as a dishevelled, jittery gangster prone to prancing in preparation for a boxing bout and transforms into a stentorian speaker with a well-practised air of regretful emptiness. The famous scene in which he learns public speaking and the choreography of authority from a down-and-out thespian (played with glee by Mitchell Butel) provides the audience with the key to this character transformation. The genuine menace that marks Arturo’s character was, however, sometimes lost amidst the shouting and loud gun reports.
Weaving is supported by a fine cast of ten actors playing multiple roles. The permeating mood of sadism is effectively conveyed in a homoerotic interpretation of the relationship between Roma and one of his henchmen. Peter Carroll is remarkable as the pusillanimous and sanctimonious Dogsborough. He also masterfully delivers the pivotal epilogue during which the audience is reminded that ‘history is a show on endless repeat’. Indeed, of all the actors in this ensemble cast, Carroll’s style came closest, in my view, to taking the expressionist risks that make Brecht’s work come alive.
Inevitably, there has been quite a lot of commentary about the timing of this production. The kinds of populist authoritarian politics that Brecht warned his audience about is currently on the rise, with the cleavage that divides liberals and conservatives growing ever deeper. The director, Kip Williams, rightly resisted portraying Arturo Ui as any particular political figure. However, he does allow contemporary quips, such as an actor sporting Donald Trump’s signature red baseball cap. In an era of alternative facts, this cinematically inclined production of Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui will win Brecht new fans with young audiences, encouraging them to see theatre as having an inherently political potential. And that is exactly as Brecht would have wanted it.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is playing at Roslyn Packer Theatre until 28 April