Bertolt Brecht never believed German audiences would cope with this allegory of Hitler's rise to power. In the end the play was never performed in his life time – not even in the US, where it was intended for public consumption. Luckily in Britain we remain transfixed with all things Nazi, whether in book, film, television or indeed theatre. But it would be wrong to see the staging of this fast-moving and enjoyable play as cashing in on our obsession with the Third Reich and, of course, our role in its eventual taming. Written in the panic of flight in 1941 – it took just three weeks to complete as he waited in Finland for a visa to the US – Brecht transposes the action of 1930s Germany and Austria to mob-ruled Chicago and its neighbouring Cicero.
The parallels are at times a little clunky and anyone in doubt as to what is meant or who is who has no excuse, as there is a full explanation in the prologue and the programme with a running commentary of unfolding events on a dot-matrix board above the stage. While it may be possible to accuse this co-production with Nottingham Playhouse of lacking a little in the menace department, there are moments when you are given a terrifying flavour of what it must have been like to be caught up in the murderous doublethink of the rising Nazi thugs.
But it is Ian Bartholomew, playing Arturo Ui, who really holds the action together, driving the narrative, set to an insistent jazz cymbal, savagely forward. His performance is outstanding. In the first half he is the slouching, petulant outsider – the gobshite from the Bronx struggling to make his way with a ragbag of followers and few friends. His transformation to the strutting dictator is superbly realised. The moment of change is an electrifying renditionof Mark Antony's oration. Bartholomew returns in Shakespear an mode in the second half to play a jolly thriving wooer modelled on Richard III as he seduces the widow of the murdered Dullfeet.
Meanwhile, he also captures Hitler's studied mannerisms exactly and the strange rhetoric with which he lured the Prussian landowners – in this case the vegetable growers of the Cauliflower Trust – into mute complicity. William Hoyland is also excellent as the weak, corrupt Dogsborough-cum-Hindenburg.
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