March 28, 2018
We get the leaders we deserve. So when politicians are bent, businessmen venal and low-life criminals murderous, the conditions are ripe for the rise of the lowest life of all.
Exiled German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote his parable about the rise of Adolf Hitler as the outcome of World War II was still unclear.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s has revisited Brecht’s masterwork in a thrilling and chilling contemporary production that avoids the obvious or specific.
This Arturo Ui is not identified with any current despot, including one in a red baseball cap.
That is its strength, for it allows us to examine the petri dish of crime, corruption and self-interest that breeds dictators, near and far.
Brecht set his satire in 1930s Chicago as a mobster muscles in on the cauliflower trade.
Kip Williams’ production is a tale of a city where cranes dominate the skyline, dodgy deals are done in Chinese restaurants, blind eyes are turned and crims get away with murder.
Yes, it feels a lot like Sydney. And yet …
On a largely bare set, camera operators circle throughout. The live-action projections initially feel like we are watching a film of the play rather than the play itself.
But as the piece progresses, the inventive and skilful use of cameras heightens the drama. And they allow attention to be drawn to subtle moments, not least in a visual reference to Hitler – the only overt nod in the production – as Ui shaves.
The result is a work that is satisfyingly theatrical and filmic, in which the actors balance the difficult task of simultaneously performing for stage and screen.
We see the bones of the theatre, as cameras follow into the wings, behind the stage and into the auditorium, just as through wit, slapstick and satire the production reveals the rotting bones beneath the edifice of power.
Hugo Weaving is outstanding as Ui. He is ruthless, manipulative and menacing throughout as he transforms from greasy-haired thug in a singlet to slicked-back statesman in a suit.
When Ui takes lessons from a theatre director (an arch Mitchell Butel) to give him the veneer of respectability what begins as a hilarious piece of ham acting as he delivers Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar becomes one of the most unnerving transformations.
There is much biting humour in this fine translation by Tom Wright. It retains the essence of Brecht’s play yet the language is recognisably Australian. A late statesman-like speech from Ui is wittily undercut as the despot delivers lines from John Farnham’s You’re the Voice. Ah, the banality of evil.
As this production makes abundantly clear, it is not Ui’s ruthless ambition alone that leads to his “triumph”. Dictators don’t arise in a vacuum. Rather, a corrupt politician triggers the events that lead to Ui’s ascendancy.
As he manoeuvres his way into the big end of town, the Fresh Produce Trust members think they can control or use Ui. Think again, boys.
By the time a solitary woman cries out that the streets run with blood and everyone has let it happen, it is too late.
The lone voice of resistance, the newspaper editor, will soon be dispatched. It is a scene reinforced musically by an excerpt from the death of Siegfried from Gotterdammerung, by Hitler’s favourite composer, Wagner.
This is a large cast with many notable performances, among them Colin Moody as the brutal Roma, Peter Carroll as the spineless politician as well as Ursula Yovich and Anita Hegh in several roles.
Brecht’s epic theatre, which ask audiences to use their heads not their hearts, is deliberately alienating and can be hard to pull off. But Kip Williams’ production has the goods – compelling, innovative and utterly relevant. It is irresistible.