Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Bert Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a hotch-potch to say the least, flinging Shakespeare’s Richard III and Julius Caesar together in a retelling of Hitler’s rise to power transposed to Chicago’s ganglands of the 1930s. Lyric artistic director David Farr’s new version manages to confuse matters further by sort-of relocating the narrative again in modern Africa. I say “sort of” since despite having a black cast dressed in costumes that evoke a number of African dictatorships from Idi Amin’s Uganda to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe the characters continually refer to the text’s original Chicago locations.
The show doesn’t help matters by getting off to a slow start, making heavy weather of the early expositionary scenes. Nothing is especially clear, the intended parallels, while obvious enough, aren’t quite mapping onto either Weimar Germany or contemporary Africa, and it’s simply not a good enough play about gangsters to stand on its own. Matters aren’t helped by a pretty patchy cast who seem to completely fail to gel into a coherent ensemble, barking their lines at one another and never playing off one another or achieving moments of complicity. Yes, this evokes an atmosphere of heightened paranoia, but it obliterates Brecht’s more enjoyable clownishness. After all, in some ways this is - intentionally - a very silly play. The empire-building nominally undertaken by Ui is that of cauliflower sales. It puts the level of gangsterism somewhere around that of Bugsy Malone.
Things pick up when the play start charting Hitler’s rise to power. Ui brings in a Shakespearean actor to help him learn oratorical skills, and gradually transforms into the Hitler we know from Newsreel footage while reciting Mark Antony’s funeral speech (you know, the “Brutus is an honourable man” one). Of course the scene is a gift for any actor, but with the additional African dictatorships angle, doesn’t quite make proper sense.
From here on in, the play’s internal sense becomes much strong and as we trot through analogies of the night of the long knives and the annexation of Austria, we have a pretty good idea what’s going on and it’s all rattling good fun. Problematically so - the issue being, if you take a figure like Hitler (or Mugabe, or Amin) then firstly dress them in the borrowed phrases of Shakespeare’s central characters, and, secondly, reduce the magnitude of their crimes to the petty squabbling of rival gangs, you wind up with a guy you’re rooting for. Not ideal.
The staging is also somewhat less than perfect, including totally unnecessary blackouts and annoying inconsistencies, like the guns sometimes using pre-recorded sound effects and sometimes letting off caps. Similarly, there seemed to be no internal logic to when scene titles were declaimed - some before the blackouts, some during and some after. Meanwhile, the raked sandpit stage feels somehow too cramped - suggesting an even smaller scope for the play, with all the characters hemmed in by the wings and packing cases.
Lucian Msamati makes a solid Ui, but lacks the sheer psychotic charisma that would really make the play fly. Until, that is, the very end, when suddenly, while making his final speech, addressed directly to the audience - delivered through microphones with enough reverb and delay to evoke the Nuremberg Rallies - he starts naming African cities rather than American towns. And it is electrifying. The list - Kigali, Kinshasa, Khartoum - conjuring up real horrors for the first time - giving a glimpse of the production this could have been.
Also: note to programme editor - it’s “African Dictators” (no apostrophe needed). Embarrassing.