It seems almost too obvious an idea to produce Bertolt Brecht’s parable of Hitler’s ruthless rise to power in the Chicago cauliflower wars as the story of an African despot such as Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe. David Farr’s superb revival avoids the trap by sticking to the play Brecht wrote.
A brilliant black African cast of just nine – some with good RSC credentials – not only miraculously conveys the epic scale of the satire, but also make the connections without hammering home the points. As Brecht said in his epilogue, the womb from which Ui crawled “still is going strong”. Fixed elections, the elimination of political opponents and the perversion of justice are not exactly unknown today. Nor is genocide, though Brecht’s 1941 Ui pre-dates (or ignores) evidence of the Final Solution.
The burning of the Reichstag and the annexing of Austria are the historical reference points in the arson attack on the warehouse and the expansion of Ui’s rule from Chicago to Cicero. And in Ralph Mannheim’s witty and elegant semi-rhymed translation, the one in which Leonard Rossiter achieved overnight stardom in 1967, the echoes of Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III are abundant and highly effective.
The Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati, who has devised the production with Farr, is a revelation as Ui. Short, squat and thuggish in a red string vest beneath a military jacket, Msamati tinges a psychopathic energy with an insinuating charm, so that the chop logic of his criminality seems an aspect of chutzpah: as he smilingly tells Dullfeet of Cicero (ie, Dollfuss of Austria), “No one, unless he has to, will tolerate coercion.”
Clarity and vigour are hallmarks of this production, one of the best in Farr’s regime so far, which is designed by Ti Green on a sandpit dotted with wooden vegetable crates. Great scenes prosper: in Ui’s lesson in platform oratory, Msamati executes his goose-step with a sly sideways wink at he audience, while Joseph Mydell’s wonderful old actor says he’d be on Broadway if it weren’t for Shakespeare; in the terrifying trial scene, a bloody corpse is sentenced to 15 years hard labour.