March 27, 2018
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Far less easy, however, is to resist this low hanging fruit. But it is precisely this restraint that makes Kip Williams’ breathtaking, quasi-cinematic production for Sydney Theatre Company so boundlessly rich. Instead of aiming for the obvious targets, Williams and translator-adaptor Tom Wright use subtle pivots and cutting-edge craft to summon a version of this play that simultaneously exalts Brecht’s theatrical philosophy, connects with an Australian viewpoint, and acknowledges the political zeitgeist. All the while, delivering a stage bursting with world-class acting.
There’s barely an atom of out place in Williams’ vision for this production, and this is in no small part thanks to the calibre of his cast, helmed by the spectacular Hugo Weaving. Rather than the lampooned, wannabe-gangster character that is often applied to Ui, Weaving’s performance seethes with violence and fury from the off. His ambition for power, as a kingpin on the downswing of a criminal career, is driven by a yearning for an infamous past and a hatred of the intellectual elite. Weaving thrums with dangerous physicality — a prowling, volatile, hair-trigger promise echoed in the grimace of gargoyle features. Even as he transforms from hands-on goon to power-wielding autocrat, an undercurrent of brutality remains.
This Ui is less pantomime villain and more Underbelly mobster, an effect enhanced by Williams’ extensive use of real-time camera work. This isn’t the first time he’s explored live video: his 2016 adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie was similarly under the gaze of several cameras. But unlike that production, where the use of video felt intrusive and arbitrary, here the cameras act to transport the audience into the heart of the action, while also offering an homage to Brecht’s theatrical techniques. Brecht also seems important in Robert Cousins’ set, with its open wings and simple furnishings. And yet, the intricacy of Williams’ cinematography, counterpointed by its physical reality on stage, creates a push-pull between the deliberate alienation of the performance, and the startling immersion of the real-time projections. Of course, it’s not just Brechtian purists who will appreciate these nods. With this production, Williams has pioneered a synergy between cinema and stage that I’ve rarely seen bettered; a production that is at once epic and intimate, operatic and graphic, graceful and gritty.
In orbit around Weaving’s spellbinding performance is an equally accomplished ensemble, who are as capable of spinning comedy as they are drama. In a blindsiding cameo as a befuddled lady stenographer, Peter Carroll leaves the audience in stitches, but it’s Mitchell Butel’s forensically perfect portrayal of the campy director charged with giving Ui Shakespearian gravitas, that takes the prize for the biggest laughs of the evening.
This exemplary cast – including Tony Cogin, Ivan Donato, Brent Hill, Colin Moody, Monica Sayers, Charles Wu, Ursula Yovich, and as the broken, bereaved Betty Dullfleet, Anita Hegh – can turn on a pinhead to conjure heartbreak on the heels of hilarity. But their most accomplished feats are also the most invisible. This production is like a Swiss watch, every movement, every moment, precisely in its place to catch both audience and camera just so. The sheer volume of detail that each cast member must execute is mind-bending and yet pulled off without a hint of that complexity showing.
This precision engineering is mirrored in Wright’s flawlessly judged translation, which protects every ounce of Brecht’s intentions while embroidering the narrative with knowing winks to Australia’s political now. These glimpses of a highjacked democracy — not so different from our own — are woven so effortlessly into the text, there’s no need to bludgeon the audience with anything more insistent. Instead, this production lets its talent, not its message, to the fore. Who needs Trump, when political theatre can be this damn powerful.
Sydney Theatre Company presents The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui until 28 Apr at Roslyn Packer Theatre