The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui – August 2013

Experience: 8/10

Written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori and revised by Alistair Beaton

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd August 2013

Having seen this last year, we were keen to see how it had changed in revival. With most of the original cast back in harness, rehearsals were presumably more straightforward, but there were a few new actors to add in to the mix who could add a fresh take – what would we see tonight?

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The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui – July 2012

7/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori

Script Consultant Alistair Beaton

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th July 2012

This is a marvellous production, which treats Brecht’s play with respect but also respects the audience’s desire for a good evening at the theatre. In fact, we got a great evening at the theatre, with both the comedic and dark aspects of the play brought out very strongly. The individual performances were all excellent, and the numbers staying behind for the post-show discussion had to be a record for the Minerva.

The set design was superb as well. Simon Higlett apparently did a great deal of research and included subtle references in the design which wouldn’t be obvious to most people, but which added to the overall effect. For example, there were tramlines representing the train tracks leading into Auschwitz, and the central arch at the back was in the same proportions as the entrance to that establishment (post-show info). The back wall was mainly brickwork, with the arch in the middle and metal stairs leading up to the side balconies. One of these had a ventilation fan on the go, with a light shining through it occasionally.

Under the arch were placed several settings. At the start it was a wall with a large poster of Scarface, the 1932 original version. Later it held the door to the gangster’s speakeasy, the fireplace of Dogborough’s country house, the public benches for the trial scene, the warehouse door for the execution of Roma, and the very large podium from which Ui makes his final speech. At other times it was left open, while furniture and other props were brought on and off as required. This took some time, and was a slightly negative aspect of the staging, as it caused a brief drop in the energy. But with such a strong production the energy soon picked up, and it wasn’t a significant problem.

The show began early, with some great music from the period – Brother Can You Spare A Dime? and We’re In The Money plus others – played and sung by members of the cast. Others sat around the speakeasy, and when the lights went down there was one final song before the master of ceremonies came on to give us the prologue. He used a standing microphone and spoke in rhyming couplets, introducing the main characters to us. As he did so, each character got up, acknowledged the introduction in his own way, and then left. The last person he mentioned was Arturo Ui himself, and this time Arturo entered from the back and marched straight through and off at the front. The reference to his similarity to Richard III was funny, and even more so for those of us who had seen Henry Goodman playing that very part.

When the prologue was finished, the room was cleared of furniture and the Cauliflower Trust started the ball rolling. Their incipient greed was obvious to see, and that was the driver for all that followed. A fake loan needed Dogborough’s backing, as he had such a glowing reputation for honesty and integrity that no one would investigate the details too closely. With a secret gift, the Trust overcame Dogborough’s steadfast refusal to assist in their con trick, and when Ui got to hear of this, he used the leverage to blackmail his way into power. Once there, the violence snowballed, but when Ui had advanced far enough to consider moving his protection racket into the neighbouring town of Cicero, the thugs he’d employed up to now became a hindrance and were removed, by tommy gun. Mind you, the guns were still in evidence when the ‘free and fair’ democratic Cicero elections were held, and amazingly enough there was a huge majority for the proposed Ui protection offer. With the Cauliflower Trust now supplying veg to both Chicago and Cicero, where would it all end?

There was a lot of humour in the early stages, getting less as the darker aspects took over in the second half. Even so, the absurd effect of gangsters talking about killing and arson in order to control vegetable distribution could still get us laughing well into the later scenes. The classic scene with the old actor teaching Arturo how to walk, stand and speak, was brilliant, with many of Hitler’s mannerisms appearing during the lesson. In addition to the very funny “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, this was a version of the play which used a great deal of Shakespearean references, with many familiar lines being mangled to fit the circumstances.

A lot of the time, though, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not, and some scenes were very uncomfortable to watch, especially the trial of the poor chap who was being blamed for the warehouse fire. Doped up to the eyeballs, he recovered for a brief spell, only to be dosed again by the tame court doctor and inevitably convicted by the judge. At the end of the first half, with Arturo on the rise, I wasn’t comfortable about applauding because it felt as if I would be applauding him, though I did want to acknowledge the actors. At the end however, the final speech, warning us to watch out for another Arturo, changed the tone completely and I was very happy to join in the enthusiastic response from the whole audience.

The post-show was incredibly well attended, by both cast and audience. The discussion covered the question of how much historical detail was necessary, with some finding the final part too obvious, but mostly the feeling was that not everyone would know the history, and in any case it was necessary to have that final speech because the play was intended as a warning. The information on what each scene represented wasn’t being shown during the play this time, although the details are in the program. The cast had found some parts of the play not easy to perform, but enjoyed the audience’s reactions to those difficult sections when our feelings were most challenged. The set was complimented, as was the music at the start, and while Henry Goodman’s performance was rightly lauded, we praised the whole cast for their performances as well. The Minerva itself was well liked by the cast (natch), and despite the many hands being raised we finally called a halt at 11:30 p.m.

I enjoyed this production more than I expected, Brecht not being a favourite of mine, but for all that I couldn’t rate it higher than 7 stars. Perhaps the pre-show talk we attended gave too much away; I intend to avoid these in future unless I’ve seen the play first. I did find it difficult to understand the dialogue for a while, as the accents were pretty strong, but I managed to tune in eventually and the rest of the show was fine. I’d certainly see another Brecht at Chichester if they’re going to be done this well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Caucasian Chalk Circle – October 2009

3/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 21st October 2009

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This wasn’t advertised as a schools matinee but that’s effectively what it was. The vast majority of the audience, at least in the stalls, were teenagers. This made the audience unbalanced and at times I felt completely out of touch with most of the people around me, which didn’t help me to feel involved with the production. For example, there’s a short scene where a senior soldier tells off a junior soldier because although he restrained and beat up the husband while the senior man raped the wife, he clearly didn’t enjoy it as a good soldier should. The kids screamed with laughter at every use of the word ‘dickhead’, they gasped and squirmed when the soldier very coarsely mentioned raping the wife, but the humour about the standards of the common soldier, which we found funny, evidently passed them by. They continued to laugh at every sexual innuendo, verbal or physical, and while I found some of it very funny myself I also felt at times that I was at a pantomime with a lot of little kids.

With all these distractions it took till nearly the end of the first half before I fully engaged with the story. The first section, the prologue, was very good, with an official type talking to villagers returning to their war-ravaged land, and trying to persuade them that the land should be given to those who could make the best use of it. Only in this case, he’s referring to consolidation of the small subsistence plots into big enough farms for the agri-businesses to move in and make a killing. The villagers aren’t sure what choice to make, so they decide to put on a play which deals with all of the issues being debated, and which will help them come to a conclusion. It’s called The Chalk Circle, and since they’re in the Caucasus, it becomes The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The story then unfolds of a rich and important man, who has a wife and a baby son. He lives in a country which is at war, and seems to have been at war for a very long time, but he’s doing very nicely for himself all the same. One Easter Sunday, some rebels rebel, he’s captured and killed, and his widow runs for her life, leaving their baby son Michael behind. Actually, the widow had to be carried away kicking and screaming because she couldn’t bring along five large suitcases full of fancy clothes. She spent so much time trying to get her servants to pack properly, she nearly got caught herself. It’s clear where her priorities lie, and it’s not with the baby.

Realising that the rebels will want to kill the baby as well, all the other servants run off, leaving Grisha to look after him. They’ve told her to go as well, and abandon the baby, but she can’t. Eventually, when the soldiers arrive, and it’s clear the baby will be killed if it’s found, she runs off, taking little Michael with her. The rest of the first half is the story of how she evades capture, including the brutal bashing in of the rapist soldier’s head (she’s vicious when she’s protecting the baby), and an arranged marriage with a man from the next valley along from her brother. This poor chap is on his death bed when the extremely drunk Welsh priest ties the knot, and the wedding party is busily turning into funeral wake when news comes that the war is over, and that they won’t be taking away any more of the young men to be soldiers. You’ve never seen a dead man recover so fast. Oops. Now Grisha’s married to one man, in love with another (a soldier wooed and won her before the trouble broke out), and bringing up a baby that’s neither hers nor either of theirs.

So ended the first half. I started to enjoy myself from the wedding scene onward – the Welsh priest was such joy to watch – even though I’d spent most of the first half wondering if I should just cut my losses and go for a coffee while Steve finished the play for both of us. Talking it over with him afterwards, we decided it was mainly the audience that gave us the difficulties, and given that things improved in the second half that may well be true. The youngsters certainly seemed to have calmed down a lot, though we noticed a lot of gaps in the stalls where older audience members had been sitting. The story picked up again, too, though in a strange way. We followed Grisha and Michael a bit further, with Michael being played by a lovely little dark-skinned puppet – an example of colour-blind casting even in the puppetry department. We saw how unpleasant Grisha’s husband was (squeals from the youngsters as a man, naked but for a pair of underpants took to the stage), then she met her soldier again across the river, and just as she’s trying to reassure him that the baby isn’t hers, she has to claim it is to stop the soldiers taking it. But they do, nevertheless.

Now the play switches back to that Easter Sunday two years ago when the rebels struck and Grisha had to take Michael away. Only this time, we’re going to hear how one man became their judge. He’s a local scoundrel, an intellectual who can’t be bothered doing a proper job so he poaches rabbits and suchlike instead. He helps the Grand Duke to escape, mainly because he didn’t like the policeman he could have handed him over to. When he’s brought in for poaching, he makes an impassioned speech to the soldiers, assuming this is a popular uprising on behalf of the working man. Turns out it was actually a coup by the fat prince (yes, that’s what it says in the program) to take power, and now he wants to get his son or nephew voted in as the new judge. The soldiers, for all he paid them to kill the revolting peasants, reckon he’s only giving them a vote because he’s not yet securely in power. So they decide to take advantage of the situation and hold auditions for the post of judge. The scoundrel plays the part of the Grand Duke for the purposes of a mock trial, and his impersonation is so good it gets all the soldiers laughing (and us). He then speaks in the Grand Duke’s defence, making all the political points Brecht wanted – the aristocracy don’t take any of the risks themselves, they send other people’s sons off to fight while making fat profits from their military contracts, they don’t even supply a lot of the equipment they’re being paid for, etc., etc., all too depressingly familiar from current events. The soldiers boot out the fat prince’s relative, and elect the scoundrel instead; at least when he takes bribes from the rich he helps the poor with the money and his judicial decisions.

But two years go by, and now the war is over the Grand Duke and Michael’s mother are both returning to claim what’s theirs. There’s a long wrangle over who should have the baby, with two lawyers arguing on the biological mother’s side. One of them lays on the sentiment with a trowel, only to be completely undercut by the other one pointing out that she needs Michael as his father’s son and heir to allow her to gain control of her dead husband’s money and land. Finally the judge opts for the chalk circle test. A chalk circle is drawn on the ground, the puppet is put in the middle with each ‘mother’ holding a hand, and the winner is the one who can pull the baby out of the circle. They have two goes at it, as Grisha complains that she didn’t have a proper grip the first time, but both times she lets the child go so as not to hurt him. I sobbed. (The audience laughed.) Naturally the judge awarded Grisha custody of Michael, and for good measure, ‘mistakenly’ authorises her divorce from her husband, so that she can marry her soldier (instead of allowing an old couple to divorce, who been out of love with each other since they met). I would have sobbed some more, but I’d run out of tissue and the young folk were groaning and ‘eugh’ing at the loving reunion between Grisha and her true love.

So, with a final moral from the judge, who’d returned to being the singing narrator again, about how everything should be given to those who can look after it best, including the land, we were done. Thankfully.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Of Hearts – February 2007

8/10

By: Alistair Beaton

Directed by: Ramin Gray asnd Max Stafford Clark

Company: Out Of Joint

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th February 2007

This was the world premiere of this play, as it turned out, and we were also treated to a post-show discussion, as directors and writer were present to see how it went. Personally, I thought it was very good, needing a bit of work here and there, but very entertaining, and speaking out on some issues that are being skirted round at the moment, but which affect everyone of us.

General context – the King is dying, his heirs are his two sons. The elder (Richard) is in love with a Muslim girl (Nasreen), and plans to marry her while still becoming King. The younger (Arthur) is a layabout, keen on a dissolute lifestyle of drink, drugs, etc., and not at all keen on becoming King if his brother abdicates. The Prime Minister (Richard) is plotting the early demise of the King (he’s on life support, so it’s just switching off the machine), until he discovers Richard’s plans. Then he switches to trying to keep the King alive as long as possible to stop Richard marrying a Muslim. Constitutional crisis. The Leader of the Opposition (Stephen) is present also – this is “above party politics” – and all sorts of shenanigans unfold. Nasreen seems to be keen on power – I hoped she’d reject Richard if he didn’t become King, but no, love overcame all. There’s also a rambling Archbishop of Canterbury (Marcus), plodding head of security (Holbrook), King’s private secretary (Sir Terence Pitch), ballsy female spin doctor (Annie), and gay assistant (Toby), giving us a good mix of views on a tricky subject, and lots of options for humour. I especially liked Toby blackmailing the Leader of the Opposition with a video clip showing him enjoying a sexual act, and Annie slapping Arthur for using the word “cunt”. Overall, the language wasn’t as strong as The Thick Of It, but it was fairly meaty at times, all well within context.

Post-show – didn’t hear all of it. The intro, where we get to see that Richard is involved with a Muslim lady, will be dropped tomorrow, to see how it goes – is it better for the audience to know what’s coming, or to be surprised? We were a very warm audience apparently, and they learned a lot from our responses. Jade Goody joke was allowed tonight, would only stay in if it was well received – expect it to stay. Comments on the amount of swearing – audience seemed split on whether it was too much or about right.

Definitely one to see again, partly to find out how it’s bedded down, and partly to re-enjoy.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me