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September 29, 2013 9:11 pm
At first, the most surprising thing about Henry Goodman’s Arturo Ui is the idea that he could ever possibly rise without being resisted. When Goodman makes his initial entrance, he is such a ridiculous, oily, weird little man that he just seems utterly risible. All tics and jerks and leers, bunched up inside his suit, his greasy hair plastered to his head, he seems to be in a different class to the suave, wise-cracking Chicago gangsters around him. But that is the point of Brecht’s 1941 comedy, a savage satire on the rise of Hitler. Ui gets to the top because he spots others’ weaknesses and ruthlessly exploits them – and because they, in turn, let him.
Goodman is magnificent in the central role. His cartoon villain antics make grotesque, compelling theatre, but he also shows his character’s insecurity and paranoia: he gets a whole slapstick routine out of dropping a chair on his own foot and scaring himself silly. But as the play rolls forward, he metamorphoses, becoming increasingly sinister.
Brecht’s Ui uses corruption in high places to gain leverage and commence his expansionist protection racket of the city’s vegetable traders. Behind Goodman’s odd spasms of movement, unpredictable vocal lurches from pianissimo to fortissimo and sudden shifts of mood, we see a darting, shrewd mind. The funniest scene in the whole of Jonathan Church’s excellent Chichester Festival Theatre production shows Ui working on his public image with a hammy old actor (a lovely, ripe performance from Keith Baxter). As he poses, struts and mangles his oratory, Goodman shows you how ridiculous his character is, but also, chillingly, how effective this absurd façade of potency will prove. Echt Brecht.
Pure Brecht too is the fact that the play goes on too long, hammers home its points and runs into the quicksand in the latter stages. Church’s staging doesn’t quite survive this, getting bogged down and slow as Ui annexes neighbouring Cicero. But elsewhere it is stylish and wickedly funny, with a slinky film noir set from Simon Higlett and great performances from Ui’s vowel-chewing henchmen, the reptilian Roma (Michael Feast), thuggish Giri (Joe McGann) and smooth Givola (David Sturzaker). Alistair Beaton’s nimbly revised version of George Tabori’s translation emphasises references to other dramatic studies in abuse of power. And the whole show, by making tyranny comical, demonstrates how easy it is to be seduced by power-hungry creeps making you an offer you should refuse.
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