Bertolt Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1941 as a parable of Hitler’s rise to power, setting the action in 1930s Depression-era Chicago – and drawing heavily on films that depicted that time – with Ui and his band of mobsters standing in for the Führer and Nazi figures such as Göring and Goebbels. Kip Williams’ new production for Sydney Theatre Company, however, starring Hugo Weaving in the title role, pulls the action into the 21st century in a thrillingly wrought retelling that’s both timeless and remarkably contemporary.
Williams has used cameras to reveal and create (or conceal) truth on stage in the past, such as in his 2015 production of Suddenly Last Summer, but in this production his deft and complex use of technology, using hand-held cameras to evoke public announcements and press conferences, as well as to hone in on fine details and emotional tells, gives Brecht’s allegory a cinematic grandeur and an action-packed visual aesthetic.
Tom Wright’s new translation is brilliant, the former STC Associate Director and regular Brecht translator giving the play a contemporary, idiomatic Australian feel, cleverly weaving in nods and winks to rhetoric from both popular culture and Australian politics, including John Howard’s notorious line: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” While Wright’s dialogue is contemporary, there are enough flashes of Brecht’s poetry to convey a sense of epic stylisation and theatrical flair – this is a performance about performance, after all.
And at the centre of the performance is Hugo Weaving, the actor charting Ui’s rise in a virtuosic performance that sees him evolve – through a deliberate and methodical transformation – from coarse, uneducated gangster (with wonderful pronunciation of words like “entrepreneur” and “denouement”) muscling into the fruit and vegetable business, into a polished orator with a forceful public image. Weaving’s Ui is both hilarious and terrifying, lurching from ‘good cop’ to ‘bad cop’ and back in seconds, with a persecution complex all too familiar and a brutish characterisation that resists, at least at first, the veneer of respectability he tries to apply. His rise is paralleled in Marg Horwell’s clever costuming, which sees a gradated shift from the filthy singlet of the opening scenes to an exquisite deep blue three-piece suit by his final commanding monologue. Williams’ filmic approach works beautifully with Brecht’s text – the cut from Ui’s recitation of Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar to Ui’s own ‘campaign’ speech is particularly effective, Weaving’s skills as a public speaker seeming to blossom before the audience’s eyes.
He leads a cast of colourful characters from Peter Carroll’s ageing Dogsborough – more cynical and knowing than innocent in the boozy opening scene – who physically recedes as his power wanes in the aftermath of his fall, to Ui’s cronies Giri (Ivan Donato, who also plays the wheel-chair bound young Dogsborough), Givola (Ursula Yovich, also a magistrate in the frenetic court-room scene) and Colin Moody, a brutal, though layered, Roma.
Tony Cogin flits between a number of roles – including the newspaper tycoon Ignatius Dullfleet (a stand-in for Austria’s Chancellor) and vegetable dealer Hook – as does Charles Wu, who delivers the opening Prologue, and takes on several ‘disposable’ characters with panache and flexibility.
Mitchell Butel is a comic highlight, playing the slick-and-slimy respectable businessman Clark, to the flamboyant Shakespearean theatre director who teaches Ui how to walk, stand, sit and declaim, while Anita Hegh brings cynical humour to businesswoman Carruthers. Her portrayal of Betty Dullfleet – one of few characters who convincingly stands up to Ui – is incredibly powerful.
The design, by Robert Cousins, draws on a similar palette to several of Williams’ recent productions, such as Three Sisters or Could Nine: spare, dark and open with the occasional vivid highlight (like the blood red roses of Givola’s flower shop). Spaces just off stage are revealed to the audience via the large screen, which offers a window into more intimate rooms.
Between Brecht’s borrowings from Shakespeare, including Richard III, and Williams’ exploration of television as a means to convey image and message, there are fascinating thematic and visual parallels between this production and Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War, which had its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Festival earlier this month, including a walking, talking shot à la The West Wing.
Humour and violence are deftly juggled throughout Williams’ production (gunshots and high-velocity spattering blood abounds) and while some scenes are chaotic, they are the product of a building frenzy. But after all the action and whizzing technology of the staging, enhanced by Stefan Gregory’s driving music and sound, the final lines – delivered simply at the front of the stage by Carroll, in front of a silent cast – hit you in the gut.
Ui, his henchmen and the world they inhabit, go beyond caricature of any single politician or leader. From the opening scene, the mannerisms, turns of phrase, tactics and rhetoric are drawn not so much from Hitler, Hindenburg, Röhm, Göring and Goebbels but from the leaders and politicians we see every day on our television screens. The power and terror of this Ui is in his familiarity.
Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 28