If you know your Dr Seuss - and if you don’t then you need to sort that out, stat - you’ll know that the moral and most famous quote from The Lorax goes thusly: “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”. And although the quote isn’t included in the Donmar’s Resistible Rise - a missed opportunity - that same moral, that ordinary people have to get up and do shit to make things get better, regardless of time and place, is very much writ large in this production.
The second play in the Donmar’s Power season follows in the footsteps of the first, the excellent Limehouse, in that it has a message that it is not ashamed to shout about. Loudly. What is a bit different in this production is that it does the shouting through the staging as well as the text. It’s an interesting approach and one that is largely very successful and always a huge amount of fun.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a largely self explanatory title. It tells the story of Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui, and his use of his criminal gang and activity to worm his way into politics, in this case the politics of the Chicago and Cicero grocery trade. Ui is incredibly charismatic, though not very bright, and relies on a coterie of small time crooks, his adoption by local political types and increasingly serious criminal activity to propel him into power.
Remind you of anyone?
Whilst Brecht’s play was originally written as a thinly veiled satire on Hitler’s rise to power, the Donmar’s new adaptation, by Bruce Norris, is a not at all veiled satire on Donald Trump. There is 0% subtlety in the attack on this new contemporary reference, which might have become tiresome very quickly were it not so funny. Much of this is down to the presence of the actor who has to sell it, Lenny Henry on fantastic form, but also some very clever and unapologetic writing and staging. All of Trump’s current obsessions get an airing - the size of the crowd at a rally, the need to build a wall, vicious attacks on immigrants and even a ‘Make This Country Great Again’ banner. The best scene in this regard is when Ui needs to wrest control of the Cicero grocery racket from a female rival. The staging of the ensuing argument scene evokes the infamous final debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton so well, including a quick slip in of the phrase ‘nasty woman’ to much wry laughter. All of this is done with a certain swagger that is essential to its success. There would be no point in doing this sort of blatant satire half heartedly and this production goes all in to make it work.
As mentioned above, this production is totally aimed at bringing its audience in and forcing them to be active participants in Ui’s rise and/or fall. This starts with the most basic aspect of staging - the stage. There isn’t one, in short. This production takes place in a speakeasy, even the programmes are wrapped in plain brown paper, with the actors milling around the audience, arranged around them in a circle, at all levels. Audience members are frequently used in lieu of actors, which is gimmicky (my hatred for audience participation being well documented elsewhere on this blog) but very entertaining from the safety of the circle. The one exception to this is the very last scene where the audience is challenged to come and sit on the floor of the performance area to show their opposition to Ui. This is a powerful moment and illustrates the wider theme of the production really well with barely a word spoken. There’s also an interesting use of live performance of sections of contemporary music, on the one level a simple way to mask scene changes but also yet another way to remind the audience that time and place are immaterial because there are always men like Ui who need to be stopped.
The cumulative effect of this commitment to message does feel a bit overcooked sometimes, almost inevitably given how many levels it’s operating on. Perhaps a fraction of a percentage more subtlety would be welcome. The production also has a slight pacing issue, in that act one is less engaging and more ‘Basil Exposition’ than an excellent act two. I’m not really sure what director Simon Evans could have done any differently here though; there is a lot of story that needs to be told before the full horror of Ui becomes apparent and it makes sense to get that out of the way and really let the piece explode in the second act, which it undoubtedly does. Maybe a couple of judicious cuts could have been deployed just to make the first act shorter but, again, I’m not sure where my knife would fall. I just feel that the production is so close to getting the balance right that it’s a shame it didn’t quite get there. It detracted only a fraction from my enjoyment though, I am nitpicking a bit here.
Any faults that this production may have do certainly not extend to the cast however. In a relatively small and multi-talented ensemble it’s very difficult to find fault and the energy and sense of fun they all bring is infectious. As mentioned above, Lenny Henry takes the title role and is hugely convincing and charismatic. That he does the comedy fantastically is an utter non-surprise, that he conveys the menace and violence of Ui so well was a surprise (for me at least, this is the first time I’ve seen Henry on stage). He brings a huge presence and physicality to the role that other actors would struggle to match and his occasional Donald Trump impressions are subtle but well executed. He has very strong support across the board but in particular from Giles Terera, a real superstar in the making, as Ui’s righthand man Ernesto Roma who matches Henry’s charisma blow for blow and gets to show off his considerable chops with some quite dark material. Great singing voice too. (Lin Manuel Miranda has done well to sign him up for the West End version of Hamilton.) Justine Mitchell is a great, affecting presence in the relatively small role of Betty Dullfeet, Ui’s Hillary, and her ultimate defeat by him is the saddest of all of those that we see in the play.
This Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is, in short, great fun. Is it occasionally overcooked? Yes. Is it funny and affecting and superbly staged? Also yes. I suppose if you’re bored of political theatre then this may not be for you, but otherwise? Well worth your time. And if you are bored of political theatre then you probably need the kick up the bum that this production delivers. Remember the words of The Lorax.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17th June.