Catch it while you can

David Wurtzel reviews The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, currently running at the Duchess Theatre.

Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui—written in 1941 but only performed after his death—does not come round very often. This Chichester Festival transfer is all the more welcome as it arrives with a brilliant cast headed by the great Henry Goodman, last seen as the father of The Winslow Boy. It sits happily in the intimate setting of the Duchess Theatre and builds to a terrific climax after a slow start.

Ostensibly set in Chicago in the 1930s as a gangster struggle for supremacy in the vegetable business, it is in fact a metaphor for the rise of Hitler. Those with some knowledge of the period will quickly recognise the Hindenburg figure (a sympathetic William Gaunt whose own lapse is protected by the gang), the Reichstag fire (a warehouse fire blamed on a drugged defendant), the Night of Long Knives and the Anschluss (the bloody take-over of the cauliflower trade in neighbouring Cicero). Goodman in the title role is a combination of initial clumsiness and anxiety, deceit, fake charm and finally an overwhelming belief in himself.

The upward rise includes a hilarious scene in which ‘the Actor’ (Keith Baxter) helps to build Ui’s public persona by teaching him the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech. There is more than a hint of Richard III along with numerous Shakespearean references—the air of Jacobean drama (including a high body count), the verse and the deliberate misquote (‘is that a luger I see before me?’). The courtroom scene in which an innocent man is convicted of starting the fire demonstrates how the gang works: relentless aggression, subversion of the truth, ruthless use of any means to gain power, and the ability to make ordinary people go along with them. The hopeless, hapless defence lawyer bravely tries to demonstrate who the real guilty person is but for his efforts is fined by the judge for suggesting that anyone other than the defendant is guilty. In the end even acquiescence is insufficient; everyone must stand up in public and support Ui who finally mounts a rostrum in a uniform to show his true colours. The superficial absurdity of a story about ‘The Cauliflower Trust’ in fact emphasises the universality of what happens when the rule of law is destroyed. As the famous last line says, ‘’the bitch that bore him is in heat again’.

For details please see: The production runs until 7 December 2013.

David Wurtzel is Consultant Editor of Counsel

Author details: 
David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.