Lenny Henry in 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui'
Lenny Henry in 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' © Helen Maybanks

I’ve never seen the Donmar space reconfigured so radically as it is for this revival of Brecht’s parable of Nazism as gangster greengrocery (really) in 1930s Chicago. It is now a prewar bar/club with wooden chairs and tables on all four sides. Director Simon Evans and his cast work the Brechtian alienation shtick by, paradoxically, bringing us in on the action: audience members are not just briefed on their required responses at certain moments, but are recruited to act as assorted corpses and patsies — even the poor schmuck tried for the play’s equivalent of the Reichstag fire is a punter.

Evans and adapter Bruce Norris are determined that their version be seen through contemporary eyes. For instance, scenes are punctuated with bar-room renditions of more recent musical numbers, from the Bonnie Tyler hit “Holding Out for a Hero” to Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch”, not unlike the anachronistic repertoire of the pianola in the TV series Westworld. Norris’s rendering of the text, mostly in blank verse with occasional lapses into couplets, is acerbic and rich in expletives, although it can’t find a closing punch better than George Tabori’s semi-standard translation: “For though the world’s stood up and stopped the bastard,/ The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Norris’s intended target is obvious: one of Ui’s orations, about rapist immigrants who need to be kept out by a wall, is not just familiar Trump talk but could come verbatim from his 2016 stump speech. This may, inadvertently, have the opposite effect from that intended: familiarity breeds contempt, true, but it also risks making the serious seem trivial.

The biggest problem in this respect could have been the central casting. Lenny Henry has long since shown himself to be a first-rate actor, but he is almost inescapably beloved. Having such a man play an analogue of Hitler is risky: we might feel we are laughing with him rather than at him. In the event, Henry overcomes such worries; as the play’s shadows lengthen, the laughs dry up. This Ui’s trademark gesture in which a Sieg Heil salute gradually morphs into a pair of folded arms loses all its absurdity and becomes genuinely sinister. In the supporting cast, Lucy Ellinson stands out as Ui’s henchman Emanuele Giri, a world away from his historical basis Hermann Göring. This Giri (still played as male) is slight and given to the kind of tittering that chills the blood.

All in all, there may not be enough here to galvanise, as plainly intended, but there’s more than enough both to entertain and impress.

To June 17, donmarwarehouse.com

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