Mob rule in spin city

Rachel Halliburton
Evening Standard, 31 July 2002

The eager maniacal grin of Arturo Ui has been sported by more than one actor with a talent for malign comedy and a tendency towards stage domination. Indeed, it is impossible to watch anyone who plays Brecht's Hitler-styled anti-hero without seeing the stage ghosts of Anthony Sher, Leonard Rossiter and Al Pacino behind him, anxiously comparing notes as to whether they have been outshone in the theatrical dictatorship stakes.

Here, the gangster movie aesthetic has been lovingly embraced by director Phil Willmott, who has appointed Peter Polycarpou as the new goose-stepping lead. Brecht produced the script in three weeks in 1941, while he was waiting in Helsinki for his US visa, and the writer's American obsession is revealed in a comic depiction that makes Hitler look like the big bad brother of Al Capone. Polycarpou rises to the challenge, mustering an appropriately supremacist glint-in-the-eye as Ui, and bringing a defiant swagger to the Chicago gangster hell-bent on taking over the city's greengrocery trade. However, in this high-energy production, the dialogue is delivered with the speed and impact of a bullet, achieving the somewhat ambiguous result that the audience member feels bludgeoned as well as entertained. It is uncertain, also, whether Brecht's play entirely stands the test of time.

Andy de la Tour's new translation manages to make the jokes sound corny as well as hammy. Yet some of the na´vetÚ is more than compensated for by the scene where sin and spin come together, as Ui takes training from a classical actor appropriately well-versed in Shakespearean villains. The financial corruption, too, has unhappily discernible echoes in today's political world.

The production's highlight, however, is visual, as Willmott conjures up 1930's celluloid America in a swirl of mist and silhouettes. The chill when Hitler is viewed from behind is a satisfying indication that the play has cast it's sinister spell.