Saturday 9th November 2013, matinée
Nobody can accuse Bertolt Brecht of being circumspect about his work. He once said that ‘art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it’. We wouldn’t call ourselves aficionados of Brecht but his reputation goes before him, and in this case the lure of Henry Goodman with a high quality cast and cheap seats in the front row was (im)possible to resist, and the clincher was the ‘hitler cat’ on the poster.
One good thing about Brecht is that his habit of telling you exactly what is going to happen in the play means we don’t have to worry about accidental spoilers in the plot summary. The action follows fictional Chicago gangster Arturo Ui and his rise to power as he takes control of the cauliflower business through a protection racket in Chicago and neighbouring town Cicero. The play takes a group of characters who would not be out-of-place in an American gangster film and uses them to parody Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Each character has a Doppelgänger from the Nazi regime, and the parallels between each of them and the key figures in Nazi-era Germany are clear (well, if like us you’re not world war two historians they will be clear after a brief foray into Wikipedia). Brecht wrote the play while awaiting permission to enter the US in 1941, and saw it as a warning to the Americans about their fascination with ‘celebrity’ criminals.
In an interview about this production, Henry Goodman perfectly expresses the tensions inherent in staging Brecht in the West End. When asked whether Brecht is enjoying a revival of fortunes, he responds, “I hope it’s never good box office. We’ve got to have someone who is disturbing, abrasive, unsettling. There’s far too much anodyne ‘everything goes’ now”. Yet he also acknowledges Brecht’s reputation for ‘finger-wagging’, saying that “We’ve gone out of our way not to be didactic”. Glad as we were that Goodman has gone for the entertainment value of the drama (more of this later), we are aware that it does seem to contradict Brecht’s ideas about epic theatre, which aim to ensure that the audience doesn’t engage with the drama emotionally. Through a whole variety of theatrical techniques, the audience is meant to be left free to engage with their intellect and reflect rationally on the events depicted (or be won over by the compelling political arguments he presents, if we were being cynical). The more realistic (albeit over-the-top) style left us a little in limbo, not quite enjoying ourselves, but not quite getting the intellectual shock factor either.
Another problem with reviewing a play as overtly polemical as this is that we end up reviewing the politics rather than the play. There is clearly still a great deal of resonance over seventy years on, particularly in the exploration of the twin human frailties of fear and greed, and the human bias towards optimism which allows people to give up power without thinking about the consequences (a theory first proposed by the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman). The ending, in which Goodman comes out of character to deliver his final warning, is a powerful one, but ultimately, the political analysis seems frustratingly simplistic. Perhaps the missing ingredient is that this play was written while Hitler was still in power and we are watching it in very different circumstances.
Putting all that to one side, we did thoroughly enjoy the performances (Brecht look away now). Keith Baxter has a hilarious cameo as ‘the actor’, a permanently sozzled grandee of the theatre who is drafted in to help Ui become more suitable for public consumption, and who inadvertently helps him invent the goose-step by advising him to walk ‘toes first’. Joe McGann brings a nice hint of menace to Giri, always smiling and with a disturbing habit of collecting the hats of his victims, making his catchphrase ‘I like your hat’ darkly amusing. We last saw Michael Feast on this very stage in ‘Plague over England’ as John Gielgud. The transformation is quite remarkable, and he lets rip as the would-be flamboyant psychotic Roma, Ui’s only real friend, a zealous meat-head whose naive loyalty proves unfounded. Henry Goodman proves what a versatile actor he is in a virtuoso performance as Arturo Ui. Starting out as the embodiment of an idiotic outsider, with moments of high physical comedy, he slowly builds up the facade of a ‘politician’, with more and more disturbing stillness and quiet authority, interrupted with brief moments of rage, and undercut by a nervous energy which continues to bubble beneath the surface. He fulfills his promise to entertain as well as inform with a perfectly paced performance which, although comedic, is never self-referential. We were however rather disappointed at the non-appearance of the cat.
Watching a play with such a passionate political theme so long after the events, it does seem ironic that Brecht didn’t change the world as he hoped. Yet he did revolutionise theatre, and perhaps his greatest contribution is not just the plays themselves, but his influence on modern playwrights who have found innumerable ways to challenge the naturalism made so popular by Stanislavski.