I took a group of drama students to this translation of Brecht's Arturo Ui last night. The production at the Duchess Theatre, London, had already had a successful run at the Chichester Festival. While the play was new to me, it was clear from the show that the quality of the translation, including some fantastic rhyming sections and contemporary (though never embarrassingly hip) language, was the bedrock of a stunning performance. This is clever, witty, insightful and brilliantly structured stuff. Brecht unpicks the rise of Ui, a metaphor for Hitler, showing how an already corrupt society gives a crook like Ui a way in and allows him to spread his poison. Brecht does not demonise his version of Hitler. Indeed, Ui is a compelling, complex, even sympathetic character, but Brecht's real target isn't the dictator at the centre of the horror, it is the apathetic, corrupt, and greedy society that allows Ui to gain a foothold on the first rung of power. Incredible.
Brazenly unsubtle, this tale of the takeover of the business fictional town of Cicero in America by hoodlum Ui is a Brechtian jape on Hitler's rise to power, the Anschluss of Austria and all the rest. So we all know the plot, more or less. An example of his fabled Epic Theatre - by which he means no more than that we are always aware that this is an artifact and we are meant to leave the theatre with action in mind not cleansed and pacified through catharsis. Brecht's Epic Theatre is thus the opposite of Aristotle's, in other words, at least in theory: he wants us moved to oppose the Fascist always and everywhere, their rise is 'resistible' and we should resolve to resist. Famously remarking that too often people leave their brains in the cloakroom with their hat and coat, Brecht wishes to deny us the pleasure of identification with story and characters, so we do not suspend our disbelief, [to use Coleridge's apt phrase]. And this is a romp, the points are made with sledgehammer subtlety making for an enjoyable play in the right hands (Leonard Rossiter's famous one I missed, Anthony Sher's brilliant one of 1990 I saw and found exhilarating). In fact, contra Brecht, I DID suspend my disbelief and this is an enjoyable take on Nazism. That it is didactic makes for some delicious dramatic ironies, not least Ui toying with the bourgeois in his early days. For me though, it is primarily entertainment not call-to-arms. What must it be like for places in ferment, I always wonder.
Very good play. Funny and written in verse. Famously getting the audience to consider how easily Hitler came to power and how quickly those abusing power reduces the masses to victims of fear. Makes you think! Especially like the last verse of closing poem.