The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Bruiser bring Ui's dreams of a 1000-year vegetable monopoly crashing to the ground

Bertold Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is an allegory that recounts Hitler’s rise to power by way of a tale set in 1930’s Chicago gangland. Many notable historical characters are represented in the play. Brecht's Dogsborough, for instance, represents Paul Von Hindenburg, German president from 1925-34, and Arturo Ui, leader of the gang, is a thinly veiled take on Hitler himself.

By adapting and touring The Resistible Rise, Bruiser Theatre Company seem to have a keen sense of ‘right place, right time’. It was a play beloved of Mary O'Malley and her Lyric Players, and was a regular attraction in the Lyric's early years throughout the 1970s and 80s. (I catch it in the Playhouse Theatre in Derry.) Today’s economic climate provides ripe ground for a play that reminds us that the seeds of fascism find fertile soil during times of economic upheaval.

Amidst a deluge of corporate-sponsored mass-media alternatives, the challenge for allegorical political theatre is to somehow catch the paying public's attention. For anyone wondering if the genre is alive and still engaging, this production proves that yes, it most certainly is.

Bruiser’s adaptation is Hollywood for the stage, in the very best sense. The set is effectively designed by David Craig. Subtly understated, a 3-dimensional film screen. The stylistic parallels with film noir are clear and central to the action, which, when it begins, brings the audience abruptly to attention as effectively as if they are watching the 10 O'Clock News (an effect is enhanced by the use of stark red lighting).

We are pulled by the scruff of the neck into the Great Depression, where the peasant members of The Cauliflower Trust are facing financial ruin. Meanwhile, Ui himself is becoming obsessed that he is losing his gangland power. In an attempt to reverse the trend, he and his crew set out to take over the trade by exploiting the peasant’s economic fears and systematically seducing them with veiled promises of protection.

Jack Walsh (Ui) obviously studied Hitler’s physicality at great lengths. At first, the playing of the character seems weak, but this understatement is purposeful. Ui slowly becomes despotic as he rises in infamy, and Walsh’s subtle punctuation of his hand gestures with flailing Nazi salutes (becoming gradually less subtle as lunacy takes hold) leaves the audience struck by the absurdity of how such a little man and his moustache came to represent the pinnacle of evil in humanity’s psyche.

All six performers are a credit to home-grown, Northern Irish acting talent. Each one engages song, recital, choreography and story-telling roles as they portray over 50 characters in all. To add to the sense of action, director Lisa May fills the stage with peasant workers, flat caps on sticks… and that’s really all that’s needed.

May’s sharp and highly disciplined direction ensures that characterisations are clear and distinct. Charlie Murphy’s portrayal of the ancient Dogsborough is particularly eyecatching - she effortlessly avoids caricature. When, in the second half Dogsborough writes his will, Murphy's portrayal of hints at regret reminds us of a beaten politician offering his resignation. We want to hug him, then we catch ourselves on.

There are moments where patches of important dialogue are lost amidst the bombardment of other stimuli, which risks diluting the impact of the play’s ‘message’, but this production is exhilarating and exciting from beginning to end. Bruiser have proved once again that their combined talents are a force to be reckoned with.

Abby Oliveira