Wednesday 10 May 2017

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar, or, Mistakenly Dispensing with Subtlety

My previous encounter with this play was at Chichester in 2012 in a stunning production by Jonathan Church featuring a chilling, compelling central performance by Henry Goodman. So this new staging at the Donmar was up against very tough competition. Unfortunately, it falls some way short.

Almost from the moment of arrival this is an in your face show. A cast member confronted me at the ticket check to wish me an enjoyable evening, programmes are wrapped in brown paper (this is the second novelty programme in recent months – at least less bulky than the ridiculous hospital notes folder at the dreadful NT Pacifist's Guide – I do hope this isn't going to become a thing). The Stalls with their cabaret set up clearly aim to embed the audience in the action, up in the Circle performers are soon appearing to issue instructions. The result, as far as I was concerned, was that this show and I got off on the wrong foot. I don't take kindly to being ordered to participate like that, indeed my immediate reaction is to get my back up and resist.

Once the show commences, the approach persists. Audience members are persistently drafted into the action. A particularly notable occasion is in the burning of the warehouse (standing in for the Reichstag) when audience members allow themselves to be drafted to help carry cans conspicuously labelled “kerosene”. It honestly puzzled me that nobody appeared to resist participation in the thuggery – that would I think have been my position had I been seated below. Now in theory, this participation chimes with Brecht's central thesis – that is that everybody thinks it, like Ui, is harmless and nobody resists. But I don't think this is really what is going on. The truth is that, in this show, it actually is harmless because we know all to well nothing is burning off stage, and the Donmar isn't going to injure much less kill an audience member.

And by consistently forcing the involvement, the production persistently points up the fakery, making it that much harder to make the rise of Ui genuinely chilling. By contrast, in the Chichester production, my recollection was of a far subtler approach that slowly sucked you in until you realised your complicity as an observer with shock. For me, this production never finds that shock.

A further problem is the equally over eager desire of this new adaptation (by Bruce Norris) to hit us over the head with contemporary parallels. This isn't quite as obvious as I'd feared from advance reports, and in fact this may contribute to the ineffectiveness. The Trump references are crow-barred into just two places – Ui's raging speech in Act 1 and the final speech in Act 2 (which I'm afraid pretty much lost all the chilling, warning power I remembered it having in Goodman's performance). As a historian I'm sceptical about the Hitler/Trump comparison, it runs into particular problems in relation to this show because there is no shortage of resistance to Trump from large numbers of people at present, and if there is a relationship it's much more complex than the simplistic presentation here. But the more fundamental problem is that the Trump material feels as if it's wandered in from a different show – not like an organic part of who this Ui is. Overall, with both these elements, I came away feeling that the subtler approach would have been far more powerful.

Really electrifying performances might have transcended some of this, but although there's no question the ensemble works hard, they mostly don't achieve that level - even the veteran Michael Pennington, so mesmerising on other occasions, seems a bit diminished here. Lenny Henry in the title role finds some moments of punch – the first Nazi salute is one of the too few occasions that chills – but he's let down by the production. Giles Terera finds a striking moment of connection just before his demise – a scene that benefits enormously from stillness. There's also fine supporting work from Justine Mitchell in a number of roles. Tom Edden's announcer has a crucial role but overplays just about everything – again I suspect this is the fault of the direction – but it contributes to the actor/Ui scene being far less funny than at Chichester – there just isn't enough transformation here – and to the final speech lacking punch.

It will already be evident that I don't regard Simon Evans's direction (this was my first encounter with his work) as being very successful. In addition to problems mentioned, the decision has been taken to stage the show in the round. From Row B of the Circle this creates quite a few problems with sightlines, and I certainly did not feel really immersed – possibly the whole thing works better from the Stalls. One can argue that the Donmar is not the easiest space for this kind of approach, except that I've known productions there that broke the wall more subtly and far more completely. Intrusive incidental music is another current vice – here characters impose snatches of popular songs between every scene – hammering home points which it seems unlikely the audience has not already grasped. It slows up the action, and shows a lack of trust in the audience's intelligence.

At the end, Evans has what might, under other circumstances, have been a real theatrical coup. In theory, the audience is confronted with a choice as to whether to resist. It did force me to engage – but on my own terms. And, to my mind, there should be a real sense of threat, of danger – it should be a very tough choice to make. As a parallel, back in 2003 I was in Washington DC and I attended a peace vigil with a group of Quakers. At one point a police car pulled up and officers came over to us – I'm sure, in retrospect, that there was nothing to be concerned about, but I remember at the time feeling really quite uneasy. This moment here should find something of that unease. It should feel as close to unbearable whatever you do as possible. Instead, the choice is far too easy – because the play has not made Ui's rise sufficiently frightening, or the audience (or at least me) sufficiently complicit in it in a non-comic sense. It might also be suggested that possibilities for resistance or complicity are far more complex than this ending allows for (Ronald Harwood's outstanding Taking Sides set in the same period with which Brecht was concerned is a good example).

From past experience I know this can be a chilling, powerful play with contemporary resonance. In our present moment, it wasn't a bad idea of the Donmar to revive it. But sadly, this is a revival that misses its marks. As so often, throwing out the subtlety proves mistaken. A missable, and as far as I was concerned not terribly fun, evening.

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