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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess


  Henry Goodman/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

In 1933, literary scholar and social critic William Walter Crotch published an essay about the comic figure of Adolf Hitler, "a garrulous chap" who, despite being laughed at by everybody, had somehow talked his way into power. Crotch, who lived in Munich in the 1920s, had often noticed a man walking the streets with "a riding whip in his hand with which he used incessantly to chop off imaginary heads as he walked. He was so funny I inquired from neighbours who he might be."
Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written while the playwright was in exile in 1941, picks up savagely on this enduringly pertinent question of how a mediocre lunatic became the most dangerous man in Europe. It transplants the story of Hitler’s rise to the Chicago vegetable market, where Hindenburg is represented by the corrupt old city mayor Dogsborough, and Goering and Goebbels are reincarnated as the gangsters Giri and Givola.
While the play’s overt didacticism can sometimes make it a dauntingly high-fibre proposition, its central role has also made it a plum choice for great actors from Al Pacino to Antony Sher. Now Henry Goodman (goose-)steps up to the challenge, delivering a virtuoso comic performance stuffed with alarming physical tics and flamboyant malapropisms. Brecht’s analysis of dictatorship owes a heavy debt to Shakespeare. At the point when the Master of Ceremonies declares, "He looks absurd, but so did the bastard Richard III," Goodman, chin jutting and eyes bulging, effortlessly swells into a grotesque reincarnation of the murderous king. Later, when seeking "electrocution lessons" from a hammy old actor, he recites Mark Antony’s oration speech in a frenzy of crotch-clutching and goose-stepping that makes us laugh, even as it reminds us of the gestures with which Hitler galvanized millions.
Goodman is ably supported by Jonathan Church’s stylish, high-paced production, which quickly whips the audience up into the violence-with-a-smile world of gangster cabaret. As the Goering and Goebbels figures, Giri and Givola, Joe McGann and David Sturzaker provide sinister heft, happily terminating any opposition to Ui’s dictatorial delusions with the ra-ta-ta-ta of the machine gun. Alistair Beaton’s revision of the script adds to the brutally comic momentum, with its cheerfully bastardised quotes not just from Shakespeare ("The slings and arrows of outrageous debts") but also the Bible ("The city does not live by bread alone").  Although Goodman’s Ui never declares, "Friends, Romaines, Carrotmen," there are points when he comes close. The moment when he holds up a cauliflower as if it were Yorick’s head is just one instance when the visual and verbal comedy combine to brilliant effect.
Against this theatre of extremes, William Gaunt puts in a wonderful measured performance as Dogsborough – full of gravitas and despair, recognizing the danger of Ui at the same time as he realizes his incapacity to stop him. It is through his predicament that we see most precisely the dangers of dictatorship. Those who assert extreme power are frequently absurd. But by the time they rise to prominence they have harnessed economic and social dissatisfaction in such a way that no one can properly challenge them. Brecht warns, "Do not rejoice in his defeat you men for … The bitch that bore [Hitler] is in heat again." Sadly we do not have to look far for examples – Syria and North Korea spring to mind – and yet again, little can be done to stop them.


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