In the Director’s Note for ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’, Zac Price welcomes the audience for attending whether interest be “history, theatre, politics or… simply intrigued by the use of the swastika on the posters.” His staging brings Ralph Manheim’s translation of the Bertolt Brecht play to the Northcott Theatre, Exeter through the Exeter University Theatre Company. He plays wonderfully with the audience through the evening which presents an allegory of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s through a cauliflour and vegetable racket a Chicago mobster starts up.
By turning Brecht into film noir, multimedia is used to great effect, with a prologue projected onto the walls of the Northcott. The production has a clean rhythm, helped by live music from a band on stage in the middle of the action throughout. After a few reviews with my complaining about technology at various productions, finally I’m seeing something where light and sound is spot on and enhancing the presentation.
There was a large strong cast and the group work in the first half delays the point of the journey where Arturo Ui takes centre stage. In those early scenes introducing the Cauliflour Trust it was Sinead McDonnell as Butcher who became the face to watch. She created a character that had the most interesting reactions to the conversations and events playing out around and did not waste and expression or move through the evening.
In turn, Luke Theobold took on Dogsborough, a man in his 80s, and gave a captivating performance that never showed signs of the young actor underneath. His slow movement, thoughtful delivery of lines and portrayal of old age worked perfectly as part of the evening. As he stood alone, speaking out to the audience of taking over the land, his character was a performance stronger than the lines Brecht gave him to speak.
The three main supporting characters to Ui all offered a range of strengths. With Joe McDonnell’s Givola there was a limp that never slipped and a wonderfully creepy scene in the florist’s shop with a young lady and several bunches of flowers. James Bailey as Giri brought some great humour amidst the darkness as the killer who takes a hat from every victim. Whilst quick to steal a laugh in scenes, he brought a fierce presence in a great courtroom scene that was terrifying. Tom Chapman played Roma and brought a sympathetic man among his people, until a death that saw him making some disturbing unsettling noises before confronting Ui with the truth and predictions of his future in a ghost sequence that was cleverly realised.
For lovers of Shakespeare the favourite scene will have been Harry Boyd’s appearance as an actor coaching Ui in a speech from Julius Caesar to improve posture, stance and public-speaking, but I cannot get much further through this comment without finally mentioning Nicholas Limm, who took on the title role. As Ui he brought humour, sadness, strength and a glorious madness. From slow quiet beginning the monster is made and the energy he threw into the big speeches that emulated Hitler were devastating to watch. Of course it’s funny that he’s talking about setting up a protection racket for sellers of vegetables, and the sweeping up of the parting in moments of frustration was a recognisable trait that raised a smile, but all the time the darkness of the man being mocked is running through the performance as he becomes the driving force of the second half.
The production was not afraid of silence, with several characters making great use of waiting before finally starting a scene or breaking mid-sentence before picking things up again. The tension this quiet brought was greater than any amount of shouting the odds about Cauliflour.
I’m not a fan of spoilers, but I was at the last night of the run and it won’t hurt to give away the trump card Price’s production played. Ui had delivered his final rousing speech, the remainder of the cast lined up and clapped their way through to a conclusion, the lights dropped to applause from the audience as the projectors came on and the final montage of clips rolled – Hitler at the height of his power, exactly where we left Ui in his story – the applause faltered as the audience considered for a moment what they were seeing. Beautiful manipulation and a stark reminder of what had impressed so at the end of the night. As the lights finally came on the present the cast a final time, the audience appreciated their work all the more.
Coming up at the Northcott Theatre: www.exeternorthcott.co.uk