The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – Review

It only takes one voice to stand up against fascism and before you know it you’ve got a revolution.

I’m not entirely sure that the Donmar Warehouse were expecting an audience to rise up and be counted but it made for a shock, chaotic finale to a rather jokey production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

That’s the trouble with (much hated) audience participation. You never know which way it will go. Throughout last night’s performance, the first since press night (always a serious & cynical crowd), unwitting theatre-goers were hauled into the show for fleeting bit parts for below Equity minimum wage.

You could see the front-row visibly shrink into their seats hoping that they wouldn’t be picked. I don’t know why directors think we enjoy it, and persist in using it, as one character says, “as a cheap theatrical device.”

But they made a mistake picking writer Carole Woddis. I’m guessing they expected the audience to act, as most did, like sheep and be intimidated into throwing their weight behind burly Lenny Henry’s thinly veiled Hitler parody, Arturo Ui.

Carole decided to rebel. She took her seat centre stage – and was promptly joined by a large chunk of the audience. “This is the fuck Ui vote,” shouted one white-haired protester. “And we don’t support Brexit either,” added another.

The production ended in a shambles with Henry smirking at the result.

Bruce Norris uses his heavy-handed adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui to mock Donald Trump – as most politically inspired stage dramas are doing right now – and it’s getting rather tedious.

Director Simon Evans has transformed the Donmar into a Chicago speakeasy with the stalls’ audience sitting – for more than two hours – on hard, uncomfortable wooden chairs around cocktail tables.

He has done away with a lot of the menace and satire to replace it with caricature wise guys, musical interludes and the aforesaid audience involvement, which makes a mockery of Brecht’s original, far more subtle and sinister story.

He didn’t write a comedy but a polemic against political extremism and the rise of a demagogue.

Lenny Henry has been carving out an impressive theatrical career since putting his stand-up show on a back burner. His Shakespeare was unexpectedly superb and he turned in a masterful performance in August Wilson’s Fences.

But here the accent is off and only occasionally does he peel away the layers to reveal the true identity of the thug that he’s playing.

Subtlety isn’t his strong point. There are moments when Arturo roars in anger and frustration and it’s loud rather than frightening.

Arturo is considered a joke, complete with a Tommy Cooper laugh, by the ruling elite until he starts to muscle his way in through protection racked and strong-arm tactics.

After taking lessons from a ham actor you see the loping gait replaced by a burgeoning goosestep, the badly fitting suit for something stylish, and the hand gestures frighteningly familiar.

The ensemble working with Ui are tremendous, from Tom Edden as a “Cabaret-style” emcee who spouts Shakespeare and offers scathing commentary and narration throughout, the always reliable Michael Pennington as the easily corruptible elder statesman, Dogsborough, and Giles Terera as Ui’s hothead number two, Roma.

Simon Holland-Roberts, Louis Martin, Guy Rhys and Lucy Ellinson play the larger-than-life mobsters, the Third Reich hierarchy and members of the Cauliflower Trust, who strike fear into the public.

They’re noisy, surprisingly tuneful, hoodlums but they spoil the mystique by joshing with theatre-goers before the show and during the interval.

The in-the-round staging works well for some seats and not others. I had a fairly persistent rear view of several substantial actors which blocked my eyeline, while the mezzanine circle looked down enviously on those sitting in the fun seats below, feeling like the uninvited guests at a party.

Arturo is an entertaining show but Evans has gone for Norris’ broad brush strokes that do a disservice to a usually unnerving and chilling original and brilliant text.

Arturo runs at the Donmar Warehouse until June 17.

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