To many a student once traumatized by the cornucopia of mind-numbing facts surrounding A-Level History, the protracted Odyssey of Hitler’s rise to power awakens memories of merely failing to stay awake. Not anymore. Dim the lights, raise the curtains, and venture down the rabbit hole into Bertolt Brecht’s madcap narrative that parallels the events leading to the rise of Nazism with a group of vegetable-trading mobsters in Chicago. In a week that marks the 50th anniversary of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the satirical war story is back with aplomb.
The intricately woven allegory is made painstakingly simple for the audience marrying real life personnel and tragedies with fictional roles and events. Hitler’s gang of cronies are a slick white faced ensemble who, in typical Brechtian fashion, break the fourth wall style of acting with their ‘Soprano-esque’ gangster demeanour. The Cauliflower Trust; portrayed as loose bellied, cigar smoking, Wall-Street fat cats represent the cartel of Prussian landowners whom Ui usurps. A warehouse inferno mimics the Reichstag fire with its subsequent show-trial and the swift seizure of the Cicero vegetable trade evidently parallels the annexation of Austria. The audience is spoon-fed these factual nuggets alluding to each scene in BBC Bitesize chunks sprawled across a hauntingly futuristic screen on top of the stage, which appears like a text message from the past. Walter Meierjohann’s fast-paced production conforms to Brecht’s concept of epic theatre as the action jaunts along in capricious montage fashion leaving the audience breathless as Ui rapaciously tightens his grip over the vegetable trade.
Brecht wrote his proleptic parody in 1941 with an American audience in mind which explains Stephen Sharkey’s often confounding excursions into the labyrinth of fast-talking American gangster vernacular. However, Ian Bartholomew plays an inimitable Arturo Ui, borrowing a number of personas from Al Capone to Charlie Chaplin. His rendering of Marc Antony’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech from Julius Caesar is a particular tour de force as the backdrop fades to black and he immerses himself in Brutus’ treachery, a staple form of evil in the theatrical world. Moreover, Ti Green’s set design of an illuminated spool of plummeting share prices is a disquieting amalgamation of old and new; at once evoking the circumstances in which Hitler seized power via the economic crash but also reminding the contemporary audience of the recent economic bust.
On this note, Brecht’s didactic message is most poignantly felt, warning us of how individuals can exploit corruption innate in society, and rise to power to wreak havoc on the world. History is a seemingly cyclical force, and this most recent and endearing production of Brecht seeks to break that cycle.
(Arturo Ui is on at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 12th November, Student Tickets available at £5, quote ‘studentgangster’ when booking.)