Wednesday, 21 July 1999

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, MT, 21 July 1999

By Bertolt Brecht 
translated by Ranjit Bolt 
Melbourne Theatre Company at Playhouse until August 21, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The final line is the most chilling moment in Bertolt Brecht's, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. "The bitch that bore him is on heat again."

It is a comment to halt thunderous applause mid-clap and force an audience to gasp and reflect on the rise of Hitler and to be vigilant. A tyrant can arise when we are looking away.

Arturo Ui is written on two levels. Its surface narrative is about the juggernaut rise to notoriety of Arturo Ui, a Chicago gangster. The other layer refers to Hitler's Germany in the 30's, from which Brecht, an ardent Marxist, escaped to Scandinavia then to the US where he wrote Ui in 1942 which was not performed until 1958 in Stuttgart.

Simon Phillips' production captures Brecht's cabaret-style theatre and is riddled with dualities. It combines slapstick and high-tech and the gangsters are both ridiculous and frightening, Ian McDonald's original music (requiring special permission from Brecht Family) is lively yet ominous and Dale Ferguson's miniature Chicago design is cute but powerful.

Ranjit Bolt's exceptional translation maintains the Shakespearian rhyme and five-beat metre of Brecht's original text as well as including pertinent quotes from Shakespeare.

Brecht's intention was to educate the public about political issues. He hammers us once or twice too often with the parallels between Ui and Hitler. Nonetheless, his criticisms of fascists and power are clear.

Arturo (Frank Gallacher) owns almost everybody in Chicago except the moral old Dogsborough, (Terry Norris) He offers "protection" they offer "support".

Gallacher is compelling as the emotional psychopath, Arturo who has no qualms about ordering killing of even his best friend, Ernesto Roma (Linal Haft). His transformation from the Chaplinesque opening image to the Hitler-look alike, is frightening.

He is supported on stage by a fine cast of fourteen men and only one woman, Rachael Tidd who plays a bevy of female roles. Most play a musical instrument. Haft, as the consummate loyal lieutenant, has enormous range and should be seen more often.  Paul Capsis is bitter-sweet as the Marlene-style singing narrator, Gerry Connolly and Jim Daly provide some fine comic turns.

Although the text needs half an hour edited out, the show is entertaining and "didactic" in the best possible Brechtian manner. It is a pity Brecht's Berliner Ensemble is closing down in a fortnight.

By Kate Herbert

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