Currently the hottest theatre ticket in Sydney is the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui. The play was written by Bertolt Brecht in 1941 and he originally expected it to be performed first in the USA. Brecht had left Germany in February 1933, shortly after the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. He lived in exile and finally returned to East Berlin in 1949 where he established his theatre company the Berliner Ensemble, who first performed the play in 1958.
Brecht described Arturo Ui as a ‘gangster play that would recall certain events familiar to us all’. It is a witty and savage satire of the rise of Hitler -- recast by Brecht into a small-time Chicago gangster's takeover of the city's greengrocery trade. All the characters and groups in the play had direct counterparts in real life, with Ui representing Hitler, his henchman Ernesto Roma representing Ernst Röhm, the head of the Nazi brownshirts, Dogsborough representing General von Hindenburg, a hero of World War I and the President of the Weimar Republic (his name is a pun on the German Hund and Burg); Emanuele Giri representing Hermann Göring, a World War I flying ace who was Hitler's second in command; Giuseppe Givola representing the master propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Ernst Röhm, for example was Hitler’s thug, commander of The Storm Battalion, and subsequently executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Ernesto Roma plays a similar role in the play and is executed in the final scene. In addition, every scene in the play is based on a real event, for example the warehouse fire which represents the Reichstag fire.
Brecht also makes clever use of numerous outside sources. For example, he inserts into the play famous Shakespearean scenes such as Richard III’s seduction of Lady Anne, Macbeth seeing Banquo’s ghost, and Mark Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar. Brecht's compelling parable continues to have relevance wherever totalitarianism appears today.
Matching the play is the performance of the Sydney Theatre company. Kip Williams has created a breathtaking, quasi-cinematic production supported by world-class acting. Hugo Weaving seethes with violence and fury from the beginning. During the play he transforms from a gangster thug to a power-wielding autocrat; yet the undercurrent of brutality remains. This Ui is less a pantomime villain and more a mafia mobster. The supporting cast are equally brilliant with nearly all the actors executing several roles. There is extensive use of real-time camera work which is unbelievably effective and transports the audience into the centre of the performance. Beside several camera’s moving around the stage there is a central camera with multiple lenses which sometimes drops down. The opening scene is set in a Chinese restaurant with the central camera about one metre above the Lazy-Susan. You see the group situated around the table, but on the screen you see the full on face of the actor when speaking. I have never seen this done before and it was very compelling theatre particularly as it was discussion about who was to get an infrastructure grant.
If you ever get the chance to visit Germany one place that should be on your bucket list is Berchtesgaden where Hitler built the Eagles Nest. At the base of the mountain is the Dokumentation Obersalzberg museum which provides an excellent summary of the history of National Socialism. You can see how the Nazis came to power using a number of techniques. In particular were the use of targeted thuggery and violence, total disregard of the rule of law, destruction of a free press, using a parliamentary party to gain political power, and threatening the judiciary. The methodology has since become standard process for most dictatorships, particularly in Africa and South America.
All of these techniques are referenced in Brecht’s play. It is easy to make modern comparisons and at the end when Weaving is giving his final speech one of his supporters is wearing a Trumpian red hat.
Both my wife and I agreed as we walked out the play that it was not Trump but the CFMEU that came to mind: the thuggery, disrespect for the rule of law, using a political party, etc. all resonated. Then in a wonderful example of life imitating art we discovered as we climbed into our car parked in Hickson Road that our windscreen was shattered. Someone had dropped a brick from one of the overhanging pedestrian bridges onto our car. The two men replacing the windscreen this morning could not believe it saying it was the first time they had seen something like this for several years.
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