Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 27
If part of the art of theatre is to put people in a vice and squeeze them until their thoughts are squished into their bodily juices, this was such a night. How often does your seat becomes a migration zone in which you inch forward in astonishment or to catch a tantalising nuance, and then are bullied backwards by shock, violence or the sheer breadth of what is unfolding?
I have not seen The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui since John Bell’s towering performance in the title role at the Seymour Centre over 30 years ago: a night that sticks out from all the other nights in a theatre like a knife does from a back. That it is so long suggests that Berthold Brecht’s play seems to resist production, which is odd when it is one of last century’s handful of masterpieces: a play of such ambition and scope as elevates it high above the usual mundanity of feuding domesticity.
More than that, here is one of the great transformational roles, demanding an actor who cannot be contained by walls, wings or the lip of a stage, but who spills off it in a great tide of gloating triumph that washes through the audience and subtly converts us from passive to active participants.
Hugo Weaving is a monstrous Arturo Ui. Even as a two-bit gangster and standover man he seethes with brutal energy. Then, as the play unfolds, and we find the hoodlum tactics are just stepping stones to standing over not only stall-holders and unionists, but a whole city and then a nation, he somehow keeps growing vaster in corporeal clout and menace.
This production is Kip Williams’ finest work as a director, the Sydney Theatre Company’s AD using a bruising translation by Tom Wright that almost tips from translation into adaptation. Armed with this latitude, Williams tilts the play into an experience that is as cinematic as it is theatrical. Multiple cameras follow every move, and project onto a big screen what even those in front rows would never see: the moles and nose-hairs of faces filled with fear or malice.
Williams has thought through the implications of his device so that the transformation of Ui from criminal thug to political thug – such a short walk in reality! – is underscored by a shift from this cinematic emphasis to a more theatrical one. The pivotal scene in the change is that in which Ui seeks the help of a theatre director to help him learn to stand, walk, sit, gesture, speak and dress “properly”. Mitchell Butel’s director is a hilarious creation of nervous tics and pompous airs, and watching Weaving’s Ui – an Eliza to Butel’s Higgins – remould himself from lout to credible politician is quite wondrous, culminating in his gradual evolution from oafish amateur to compelling professional in delivering Antony’s great speech from Julius Caesar.
Peter Carroll bends the hapless Dogsborough into Peter Carroll, and then imbues him with a wealth of conflicted dreads and arrogances (the actor also enjoying a riotous turn as the stenographer in the courtroom scene). Colin Moody’s Roma is the henchman from hell, and, rightly, the only person whom Ui fears, while Anita Hegh excels as Betty Dullfleet, a Queen Anne figure to Ui’s Richard III.
The production only drops away when its parallels with our own politics become too bald. Hegh’s caricature of Caruthers as Michaela Cash certainly earns its laughs, but jars our attention away from more subtle matters, as does Wright’s re-contextualised appropriation of Howard’s “we will decide who comes to this country” doctrine.
Amid the extensive use of the big screen designer Robert Cousins still astounds us with two true coups de theatre: a florist shop created by a hundred garlands dropping from the flies, and Dullfleet’s funeral held in a dismally steady drizzle.
Although Williams’ production is studded with Brechtian theory, it never feels like items being ticked off a shopping list so much as elements in the organic realisation of the play. At heart that play is about the fragile nature of democracy, and one does not have to scrutinise the world or even our own country too closely to see the hideously grinning proximity of that threat.
Until April 28.