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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui starring Lenny Henry – review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘slick but heavy-handed’

Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks

If you thought the Donmar Warehouse was one of the few theatres where you could absolutely guarantee that you wouldn’t encounter audience participation, you’d be wrong.

There’s a fair sprinkling of it in Simon Evans’ staging of Brecht’s satirical allegory. Designer Peter McKintosh has turned the space into a speakeasy with wooden chairs and tables, and a staircase leading up to the gallery. Sit at the front and there’s a chance you might be asked to carry the can (quite literally) for the characters.

In The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written swiftly in 1941, Brecht uses the ascent of a Chicago racketeer as a metaphor for the rise of fascism. It’s abundantly clear who Bruce ‘Clybourne Park’ Norris has set his sights on in his new adaptation. He’s not exactly subtle about it – there are great clunking references to the building of walls and making America great again.

Lenny Henry’s performance is a model of restraint in comparison. His performance is very physical – the man knows how to fill a stage – but he’s never cartoonish. In the beginning he’s all Cagney swagger and fidgety fingers. He does a lot of acting with his shoulders, but he handles Ui’s transformation into something more sinister and formidable with skill.

The scene where Tom Edden’s acorn-fed ham of an actor teaches him how to sit, how to stand, how to present himself as a leader of men, is a highlight. This is precisely because Henry lets Edden chow down on the scenery while he stands back in his sock-suspenders and watches. The moment when Ui first raises his arm in a quasi-Nazi salute is chilling.

The ensemble work is also strong. Michael Pennington brings emotional complexity to the corrupt Dogsborough, Edden is great manic value, doubling as a narrator and newspaperman. Lucy Ellinson is unnervingly impish as Emanuele Giri, Brecht’s Hermann Goring-stand-in, and Gloria Obiyano – who was for my money, the best thing in the recent revival of musical The Wild Party – impresses in a number of smaller roles.

Evans, who directed three of the four productions at cocktail bar-cum-pop-up theatre Found111, also has previous with site-specific specialist Secret Cinema – Millers Crossing, the Coen brothers' gangster classic, was one of his – and he deploys some of the exact same tricks here. There’s a lot of slick business with hats. There’s even a bit when someone sings Danny Boy.

This is a superficially entertaining production. It’s stuffed full of music, everything from Nina Simone to Radiohead, Henry’s presence anchors and enriches it, but it’s also heavy-handed in the way it insists on the play’s contemporary parallels.

For all its snazzy speakeasy trappings and its little jokes about corporate sponsorship, its sense of irony is underdeveloped. It seems primarily concerned with showing its audience a good time. It’s diet Brecht.

Verdict
Lenny Henry enriches an entertaining, slick, if heavy-handed, take on Brecht
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