My German teacher at school used to say that Bertolt Brecht did not want you to sit back at the theatre and eat a packet of Malteser’s while immersing yourself in the play.
Being a passive member of the audience is not an option with Brecht. He pioneered a theatrical technique called Verfremdungseffekt (alienation) which reminds us that we are watching a dramatic production so we must make moral and intellectual judgements rather than be swept away by sentimentality.
This is certainly the case with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which opened at Nottingham Playhouse this week. Characters, who had white painted faces, step outside the narrative; a cigarette is lit up in front of the fire safety curtain and the central character Arturo Ui enters from a door at the back of the theatre.
Despite these dramatic techniques, this is one of Brecht’s more accessible plays. It is set in during the Great Depression in 1930s Chicago when mobsters and corrupt businessmen ruled the city.
But beneath its Hollywood veneer, this is a dark satire on Hitler’s rise to power. It is the tale of Arturo Ui, who starts out as a lowly criminal and ends up holding a cast iron grip over the city’s vegetable trade with his protection rackets.
Brecht, who wrote the play while exiled in Finland in 1941, leaves us in no doubt of his intentions. Each character correlates to a person from the Nazi era and every event is one that has actually taken place, for example the warehouse fire trial is the Reichstag fire trial. We are also told via electronic signs about the historical event before the fictional one is played out, once again leaving us in no doubt that these events really happened.
The script, which is a new translation by Stephen Sharkey, was brought to life brilliantly by the cast members, including Giri (played by Mike Goodenough), who depicts a thug-like Goering with remarkable skill and the stately but corrupt Dogsborough who was played by Eliot Giuralarocca and represented President Hindenburg.
Meanwhile, Ian Bartholomew was captivating as Arturo Ui. He was at once powerful and pathetic, comic and unnerving. He body language was spot on and he really came into his own when he delivered his final speech. In this scene, a Nazi film reel forms the backdrop while Ui, elevated high on a lectern and surrounded by terrified looking people, addresses the audience. It is a chilling reminder us that we have all been complicit in his rise to power. As with Hitler, it is not that the people supported him; rather it was the fact that we were passive enough to allow it to happen.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is on until 12th November. For tickets click here. Follow on Twitter #arturouri.