Has Brecht’s time finally come? His line “what’s robbing a bank compared to founding one?” is singularly appropriate to the latest headlines. But this satire on the rise of Hitler, detailing how businesses can conspire to fix prices, and Ui’s assertion that those at the very top must be rewarded with greater incentives definitely has a resonance.
It could be said that Brecht’s play, with characters based on forgotten historical figures like Hindenburg and Dollfuss, would be of little interest today. But Brecht’s point is that Hitler’s rise wasn’t about a charismatic speaker tapping into the German mood, but a deliberate manipulation by the businesses – until they found they’d created a beast they couldn’t tame.
It’s a strange piece. It’s story of a bunch of gangsters trying to corner Chicago’s fruit and vegetable market, and has the makings of high farce – though casual violence is never far away. Brecht’s text, heavy with Shakespearean allusion, drips with irony. Even if some parallels are little heavy-handed, it remains a devastating attack on the values of Nazism.
Jonathan Church’s fast-moving production brilliantly captures Ui’s journey from small-time gangster to crime supremo. Henry Goodman’s stellar performance powerfully treads the journey from reviled comic figure to assured, all-powerful orator. It’s a gem of a part, and Goodman makes the most of it. The scene where he’s tutored by an actor (well played by Keith Baxter) is extremely funny but shows how he learned the art of manipulation. Goodman’s basilisk stare is bristling with menace as he mixes the charm with understated violence: it’s a frightening portrayal.
There’s strong support from William Gauntas Dogsborough (the Hindenburg character), realising too late that Ui had accumulated too much power, while Michael Feast, Joe McCann and David Sturzaker are Ui’s are suitably threatening sinister henchman. Plaudits too for George Tabori’s fluent translation: Brecht is not easy to get across into English, but this text sparkles.
And while the play has elements of farce and there are some extremely funny moments, the famous final lines remind us that Hitler wasn’t necessarily a one-off and another demagogue could emerge given the right circumstances.
- By Maxwell Cooter