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Did the critics resist Lenny Henry's Arturo Ui?

Simon Evans' production transforms the Donmar Warehouse into a 1930s speakeasy


Matt Trueman, WhatsOnStage


"This must be theatre's version of Godwin's Law. Bertolt Brecht's mobster Arturo Ui is, famously, a sly spoof of Hitler... By looping in one Donald Trump, Bruce Norris' springy new adaptation seems rather too pat – at once overblown and underpowered."

"...Lenny Henry's Ui becomes almost a straight man. Beneath a back-and-sides so short, it's non-existent, he's a huge presence – lumbering at first, then genuinely imposing. His mannerisms, like Norris' script, glance off The Donald – no all-out Alec Baldwin impersonations, but the odd echo here and there."

"Subtle, this ain't. It was never going to be... It's all rather safe: a well-worn joke we know and love. Trump's too easy a target."

"And this is, first and foremost, a fun night out. Turning the Donmar into a rusty, run-down speakeasy, Peter McKintosh's design looks a few billion dollars... Between scenes, we get lush snippets of semi-relevant pop songs: Radiohead's "Burn the Witch" and Rag'n'Bone Man's "Human"."

"Evans' point is that politics is all theatre – and we willingly play along... The interaction earns its keep right at the end, as Ui calls a vote on new executive powers. Either we stand in support or we step out onto the stage in protest – and so make a spectacle of ourselves. Staying seated counts as abstention, not resistance. All it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing – and for theatres, perhaps, to stage soft-centred satire."

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard


"In a new version by Bruce Norris... its topical resonance is hammered home. Though sparks of wit are plentiful, the Trumped-up features — including talk about building a wall and making the country great again — couldn't be described as subtle."

"Lenny Henry brings heavyweight authority to Arturo Ui... Others have played him as a shabby loser, a furtive sewer rat or a clownish, creepy counterpart of Shakespeare's Richard III, but Henry makes him a smug bully with an intimidating physicality and a bruising smile."

"Punchy support comes from Giles Terera and Lucy Ellinson as two of his henchmen, crudely violent Roma and riotous Giri."

"Brecht's chilling play argues that fascism is a natural consequence of capitalism. Even if the savage bleakness of his vision doesn't always come across in this revival, it's skilfully performed, atmospheric, at times uproariously funny and guaranteed to make theatregoers squirm."

Michael Billington, The Guardian


"While Simon Evans's production and Peter McKintosh's design successfully transform the Donmar into a sleazy speakeasy, the incorporation of audience members into the action also lends the play an air of communal jokiness."

"But, while Brecht would have welcomed the idea of spectators sitting at tables with a drink, Evans overdoes the audience involvement."

"Henry deserves praise, however, for accurately capturing Arturo's transformation from a shambling klutz into a figure of authoritarian power. Even though I've seen the pivotal episode when Arturo takes lessons from a Shakespearean actor more sharply played, and Tom Edden as the thesp gives us too much uncured ham, the moment when Henry magisterially folds his arms across his chest in imitation of Hitler still provokes nervous laughter."

"But, while I understand the urge to give Brecht's play a contemporary bite, it takes more than references to newspaper guys as envious "losers" and to cities overrun with immigrants to persuade me that Arturo Ui is a prefiguration of Donald Trump."

Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out


"Hey, you know who Donald Trump is a bit like? Wait for it... wait for it... brace yourself... that Donald Trump… he's a bit like... HITLER. Buuuuuuuurn."

"Sometimes this premiere production is funny and relatively subtle, such as when Depression-era Chicago mob boss Arturo Ui – played by the redoubtable Lenny Henry – answers an unrelated question with a self-absorbed rant about how the local newspapers are covering him. At other times it is A Bit Much, notably the speech where he pledges to build a wall to keep immigrants out (a subject never explored in any further detail)."

"...Henry is the perfect counterweight - the erstwhile comic plays Ui as a big, still, intimidating guy with a gluey Bronx accent, not trying to frantically steal scenes but instead offering a compelling, darkly zen core to them... He has Trump's hulking frame and bluffing populism, but he sensibly avoids imitation."

"At the risk of being an old bore, I'd love to have seen both Henry and the script in a more, y'know, Brechtian production... To be frank it's a bit reminiscent of hipster cash extraction experience Secret Cinema, which is fine but maybe feels a bit against the righteous spirit of the whole thing."

Ann Treneman, The Times


"This Bertolt Brecht play, a satirical parody on the rise of Adolf Hitler, is not often staged... There may be a reason for that. But the Donmar likes a challenge. Here it has been adapted by Bruce Norris, who has won Pulitzer, Olivier and Tony awards. Thus this is a world premiere and Ui is played by none other than an explosively good Lenny Henry."

"In the best scene of the night, Ui is coached in how to walk and talk by a hilariously OTT resting actor (Tom Edden on great form). Henry gives us his goose-step, his arm salute."

"Simon Evans directs but the two threads — of Chicago gangland and political parody — never mesh into anything powerful. Norris is intent on drawing further and more modern parallels... Trumpisms are sprinkled throughout."

"The acting is top-notch. But the play feels try-hard, the action never really flowing and some scenes are tedious. Norris is so anxious that we get the Trump connection that he resorts to the theatrical equivalent of shouting: at the end a banner says "Make This Country Great Again". It almost feels cheesy and, yes, that would be cauliflower cheesy."

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 17 June 2017.