‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’: history is an infinite loop

By Steve Dow
The Sydney Theatre Company production brings Brecht’s parable closer to home

Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. © Daniel Boud

The bitch that bore Hitler is in heat again. German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 allegory for his country’s dark decades of fascism, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, comes to Sydney Theatre Company in a timely reminder that history is an infinite loop. As various nations veer to the right, strongmen demand their populaces turn up to vote in sham elections; the threat of violence dissuades challengers, while leaders award themselves virtually unlimited tenure at the top.

In a welcome return to the theatre after a three-year absence, Hugo Weaving is commanding as chief hoodlum Arturo Ui, whose murderous rise, originally set by Brecht in 1930s Chicago, is predicated on a corrupt government and business elite. Weaving plays Ui as a contemporary singleted Australian sociopath with status anxiety, vainly worried about his public image and flipping through The Daily Telegraph hoping to spot coverage of his mob’s crimes. He heads a strong ensemble that is in sync with Brecht’s comic and dramatic tonal shifts, which flip on a dime between absurdity and terror.

In director Kip Williams’s production, a subtle allusion can be drawn to the current US president’s penchant for whipping up fervour and fear: one henchman at a political rally wears a distinctive red cap. But Weaving has said he was “not going to go down the Trump road” with the role of Ui, “because it is too ridiculously obvious, and actually it diminishes both the play and the character if you just fix the character in a cartoon version of just one person we know”. Good call.

That leaves ample room to drive Brecht’s parable closer to home, with Tom Wright wittily taking parochial political liberties in his English translation of the play. Characters co-opt Christopher Pyne’s claim to be “the fixer” and ex-treasurer Joe Hockey’s division of Australians into “lifters” and “leaners”. But the lyrics of former pop king John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice” are also wrung for dubiously fascist twists, jokily countermining the threat that Ui’s gang might just shoot you in the back or head, or slit your throat, if you question the gangster’s self-serving deceptions.

Williams makes extensive use of live video, with several camera operators filming the ensemble through virtually the entire play, both centre stage and from the wings, so that we watch their much larger faces appear at alternative angles in close-up on a huge screen at the stage’s rear. Williams justifies his use of film on the basis that The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui itself was inspired by a raft of cinematic influences, from James Cagney movies to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

No doubt Brecht’s theatre in turn influenced many filmmakers while G.W. Pabst’s 1931 German- and French-language film adaptations of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, another play about an underworld antihero, contributed to the early grammar of sound cinema. However, Williams’s love of marrying theatre and cinema, explored with varying efficacy in his 2015 production of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, has both benefits and disadvantages.

Williams and his team use some striking techniques, playing on the screen with multiplying faces, dimensions and textures, heightening the vibe that we are in a horror hall of mirrors. This serves to break down theatre’s fourth wall, emphasising deception at every turn and enriching the parody of the forces that corrupt capitalism. The audience also gets the benefit of close-up facial reactions to the gags, an immediacy that heightens the comedy.

But having almost the entire play mediated through a screen also serves to undermine the live experience at times. The screen is so huge and visually magnetic with its high-definition video that the eye is drawn towards the one or two individuals on it, at the expense of the ensemble. The camera work is effective, no question, but overused. Brecht’s hyperreal scenarios lend themselves to virtuosic feats of projection, but we still hunger to connect with the live humans drowning in this venal sea of sickness.

The casting is flawless. Anita Hegh, one of the most under-appreciated actors, wrings pathos from the widow Betty Dullfleet. Peter Carroll is suitably spaced out as corrupt cabinet minister Dogsborough, while Mitchell Butel steals a scene with a costume change into a floppy-haired, foppish theatre director. This is a strong production, which will help us laugh even as we acknowledge the threat of impending doom.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.


Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. © Daniel Boud

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