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The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui
Had anyone stopped Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director recently and asked to see in his briefcase, they’d have been worried.
Jonathan Church has been carrying around gangster movies and books about Hitler.
He’s not planning a bloody coup d’état, mind. He’s been researching for his annual turn calling the shots on stage from the director’s chair.
“I had the joyous task of watching every gangster movie under the sun,” he jokes. “If I had been knocked down by a bus my briefcase had a dozen gangster movies and lots of books about Hitler. I hate to think what somebody might have thought if they had rifled through my bag.”
The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht parallels the rise of Hitler in his native Germany with a power grab by a fictional mobster in depression-era Chicago in the 1930s.
Many of Hitler’s close associates – Joseph Goebbels, Ernst Röhm, Paul von Hindenburg, Hermann Göring – are represented as characters in the play.
A group of businessmen who run the Cauliflower Trust represent a whole stratum of society in Germany that supported and enabled Hitler to get into power.
Scenes in the play also borrow from real events. There is a fire in a warehouse in the docks that represents the fire which destroyed the Reichstag.
But, as Church points out, the comparisons are parallels rather than literal.
“The great thing is, because they are American gangsters, it’s not immediately obvious. You are not playing Goebbels, you are playing an American gangster who happens to represent similar things.”
That means the story can work in its own right, irrespective of whether or not people have an in-depth knowledge of Hitler.
“You don’t need to understand the history of the 1930s and 1940s. The gangsters allow the story to exist alone.”
Brecht wrote the play in 1941 while in exile in Finland.
He had decided to leave for America, and thought the equation of Hitler with Al Capone would give him a foothold on the American stage.
Though he was yet to arrive in the US, Church says Brecht had seen its gangster movies from the 1930s.
“There is a movie you and I know from its remake, Scarface, which Al Pacino did, but there is a 1930s movie Howard Hawks made of Scarface, which is absolutely brilliant in its black and white, film noir, gangster quality.
“We absolutely believe Brecht had seen a lot of movies of that time, by Jimmy Cagney and others. And what’s interesting about those gangster movies is that the film studios were so nervous they put a disclaimer before the films, saying: ‘This movie is an indictment of organised crime’. It’s slightly like Brecht’s message. The film studios were terrified to be seen to be glamorising violence. It was a huge issue in the 1930s.”
Arturo Ui is the satirical parody of Hitler. He will be played by Henry Goodman. Church’s message to Goodman in rehearsals was to work on the journey Ui takes from ridiculed small-time mobster to serious dictator.
One inspiration was Leonard Rossiter’s performance as Ui in a 1967 production that used the same adaptation Church has worked from by George Tabori.
“Ever since Rossiter, any actor playing Ui in any production has to make the audience enjoy the humour and be able to laugh at this small-time gangster when you first meet him. But then they have to go on a journey where you become scared and terrified by him as a character and what he represents.”
Because the play is a direct and thinly-veiled attack on German apathy towards the threat of Hitler’s rise to power – as well as a warning to future generations – finding the right balance between humour and terror is imperative.
It’s one reason why Church chose to perform the play in the intimate Minerva studio space, where they have created what could be a warehouse for trading and selling, rather than the Festival Theatre.
“I saw a production on a big stage once and of course it’s a big play but I felt the psychological terror of this man manipulating everybody.
“It was hard in a big space, whereas by placing it in the Minerva we can make some of those things more immediate and chilling, a bit like we did with Macbeth.”
Brecht wanted to destroy the dangerous respect commonly felt for great killers. He was influenced by Shakespeare – especially Richard III, the bloodiest dealer of death, often seen as a delicious villain.
“The message of the play is if good and normal citizens don’t stand up and notice these things are happening around them, it’s not just Hitler, this will happen again and again and again.
“It is terribly topical: we have corruption in the press, we’re fighting wars and trying to make sure dictators are taken down in other parts of the world.
“It’s just the arena has moved from Europe, but it is still true. If people turn a blind eye and the right financial conditions exist – in Chicago it came out of depression and prohibition – dictators can rise.”
* The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui is at the Minerva Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, June 29 to July 28. Shows start at 7.45pm, matinees 2.30pm, tickets £23.50/£29.50. For more information call 01243 781312
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