The role of Arturo Ui calls for bravura, high-definition acting and that's what it gets, in spades, from Henry Goodman in Jonathan Church's splendid production, which began life last year in the Minerva Studio at Chichester and has now transferred to the West End. Brecht's blackly farcical "gangster spectacle" satirises Hitler's bloody rise to power by cutting him down to size as a ridiculous Chicago hoodlum who seizes control of the city’s greengrocery protection racket. In a tour de force of wild-eyed demonic intensity, the actor brilliantly charts the evolution of an absurd upstart into blood-freezing demagogue.
Goodman's Ui literally bursts onto the stage – through a film poster for Scarface, bits of which stick disrespectfully to his teeth. He starts off as the hunched, brooding butt of jokes and such a bag of nerves that he leaps up to shield himself with a chair whenever there's a knock at the door. In his glaring touchiness, you glimpse the inveterate figure of fun resolving to have the deadly last laugh. The transformation begins in the hilarious scene where an old Shakespearean ham (excellent Keith Baxter) is hired to give him tuition in deportment and diction. The joke is that in the course of botching the grand mannerisms of classical theatre (and of mangling Mark Antony's funeral oration), Ui hits upon the trademark gestures of Nazism. He can't get enough of himself, as he struts about in his ludicrous new goose-step, checking the effect in the mirror and evidently dreaming of all those rallies-to-come.
Church's production lays savagely funny stress on how stage-managed Ui's ascent is. The short scenes that dramatise the rigged warehouse fire trial are a masterpiece of darkly droll pacing here, with a touch of warped Lewis Carroll in the blatant illogicality whereby the accused, drugged so that can't defend himself, is framed for a crime he couldn't possibly have committed. This production leaves implicit the specific historical parallels (between the take-over of Cicero and the Anschluss of 1938, say), which is good because the point of the play is that a Hitler can arise at any time and, in the earliest stages, be resisted.
Beginning with cheerful jazz in a Chicago speak-easy, the production ends with a shocking coup de théâtre, which I will not reveal expect to say that after the megalomaniac frenzy of Ui's final rant atop a lofty podium, it is Goodman who peels off his moustache and comes out of character to speak the epilogue's wise warning that "The bitch that bore him is in heat again."
To 7 December (0207 400 1257)
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