I saw my first Brecht play as a teenager. It was staged with a large cast and impressive effects in one of the historic theatres of Paris. The play made a lasting impression as a vivid description of how a dictator sizes power– but all felt very distant, just as I was looking down from the balcony to a faraway stage. Surely this concerned the past or far away countries such as Yugoslavia who would soon know better?
The recent staging at the Donmar warehouse only has in common the text and the use of a fine actor playing against type for the lead. Lenny Henry embodies the terrible power charisma can exert when used to dominate rather than simply entertain.
Donmar only counts 250 seats, possibly further reduced by the staging of the play as if inside a cabaret – this intimate setting enables a direct confrontation of the public with the subject matter of the play. I usually dislike immersive theatre where you must pretend to be part of the story. However, here it is used to spectacular effect: the degree of involvement of the audience mirrors that of the complicity that underpins the rise of Arturo Ui. When you first get in the theatre, Arturo Ui (Lenny Henry the man himself) comes to shake your hand. You are encouraged to applaud or coo on cue, first for fun then in increasingly menacing manner by the actors, some get dragged in for the silent roles of victims up to a climatic vote by the full audience on letting Arturo Ui take over his main competitor (the annexing of Austria by Germany).
The programme of the play comes in a brown paper cover – it is more adequate than feels comfortable to highlight the renewed relevance and provocation this play has today – will we ever learn of the slipping path demagogues are willing to take us on for their own greed?