A CurtainUp London Review
The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui
The major problem with the production's transition to Africa is that Brecht was so specific in Arturo Ui in the references he made to Hitler's Germany and his ascent to power. Brecht wrote Arturo Ui in 1941 when he was in exile in Finland awaiting permission to enter the United States.
The old character, Dogsborough, here played by the magnificent Joseph Mydell is the depiction of Marshall von Hindenburg, Hitler's predecessor and facilitator. Ernesto Roma (Ariyon Bakare) is Ernst Rõhm, Giri (Christopher Obi) is G?ring, Givola (Nyasha Hatendi) is Joseph Goebbels, the cauliflower growers are the Prussian Junkers, the fire which destroys the vegetable dealer's warehouse is a metaphor for the Burning of the Reichstag. These 1941 German specific references sadly do not work when placed in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, although the idea itself is interesting. I suppose what was needed was a major rewrite but then this would have been a completely new play and the intricacies of Mugabe's political machinations are not well enough known in detail to have the same dramatic impact as Brecht's study of the end of the Weimar Republic.
The first thing you notice, apart from the magnificent, squaring up, bulk of Roma and Arturo with their swaggering gait and the glint of zircons in their ears is the rhythm of the text, translated as blank verse. There is Southern African vibrant music and the stage has been covered in the red earth of Africa. The stage props are simple, a throne like chair with carved lions for our leader and cauliflower crates which double as seats.
The performances here are outstanding but too often the tone becomes jokey rather than sinister. Lucian Msamati takes the honours for his dictator, a figure of ridicule, self obsessed, vain and stupid. Msamati captures the seductive appeal of Arturo at the same time showing his ruthless elimination of his enemies. In what is the most enjoyable scene and incidentally, one which effectively is believable in its new setting, Arturo has lessons from a theatrical actor and luvvie (Joseph Mydell) who teaches him how to sit, how to walk in goose steps and how to orate using Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar. Arturo learns his lessons well and we are amused to see him putting the elocution and deportment into practice later in the play.
Two others of the principals put in excellent performances: Joseph Mydell, who incidentally played Mugabe in the play Breakfast with Mugabe, as the elderly honest man trapped by scandal into backing Arturo, and the young find, Nyasha Hatendi, who was so exceptional in The Brothers Size at the Young Vic last year, as Givola the ambitious, weasel like rising star in Arturo's gang. The interesting Nyasha Hatendi was born in Washington, brought up in Zimbabwe, schooled at Eton and learnt his craft at RADA.
Although the specific details of Brecht's script do not necessarily work in the Africanised context, the dictator's political elimination of opposition does, including Arturo's explanation of opposition to him as being the result of a class system showing prejudice for his humble origins. The manipulation of the press and interference with the judicial system complete Arturo's success. It is important to remember that this play could not be shown in Harare, that the director and actors would be imprisoned or worse.
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