Left – Colin Moody and Hugo Weaving. Cover – Hugo Weaving (background) and Monica Sayers. Photos – Daniel Boud
Perhaps the most anticipated production on STC’s slate this year, and seemingly their most heavily-advertised ever, Hugo Weaving playing Arturo Ui is undeniably a genius bit of theatrical alchemy. Those who have followed his stage career, or his many roles in Australian cinema prior to his Hollywood breakthrough, are well aware that Weaving has had a diverse career playing all manner of complex and sympathetic characters. So while it would be wildly disingenuous to suggest that Hugo Weaving is typecast, it is nevertheless hard to shake the impression of his most famous work as immensely memorable baddies.
Inevitably this stokes a certain involuntary yearning to see him play some of the great nefarious roles of the theatrical canon, and having seen him try his hand as Macbeth here in the Roslyn Packer Theatre a few years ago, the prospect of one of our greatest actors taking on this less-often performed classic stage villain is a prospect to make theatre aficionados practically salivate.
Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play (although not performed until 1958), tells the tale of the titular Arturo Ui, a cruel and bloody mobster. Ui decides that he would have a more prosperous time racketeering by working his way to the top of a legitimate fruit and veg business empire with government connections, than persist with traditional gangsterism. Thus Ui and his cronies set about intimidating unionists, politicians and even the courts along the way, until he stands within reach of possibly running for legitimate public office. At the time, Brecht was of course making a direct analogy to the thuggish, Brownshirt-enabled rise of Adolf Hitler, who was at that point still very much at his apex.
But this is not merely the tale of one evil man’s indomitable will-to-power, but rather the failure, corruptibility, complicity and capitulation of the system around Ui, which allows him to gather more and more influence, unchallenged on his way to the top. As one of the greatest and most bitterly ironic titles in the history of theatre proclaims right there on its tin, this is the Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. His ascent could have been resisted, it is simply that no-one ultimately did. At least, not in any way that was ever effective enough to stop him.
The parallels to Hitler are obvious, and the play frames itself as an overtly cautionary tale, with one of the most famous closing lines outside of Shakespeare. In this new translation by Tom Wright, it proclaims like a stinging smack in the face that “Of course this all happened so long ago. But be warned, the bitch that birthed Ui is back in heat.” Needless to say, it has become popular for the show to be revived around the world in the wake of troubling elections and political turmoil. It proves especially resonant in the aftermath of successful fearmongering campaigns by politicians with populist and autocratic tendencies.
If anything, one of the more remarkable things about this production is that it is actually quite restrained about drawing overt parallels to any obvious topical targets, most especially Donald Trump, who gets at most a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod in the fleeting presence of a red baseball cap. Indeed, Hitler himself gets an only marginally stronger passing reference, as Weaving at one point pauses while shaving, leaving the foam unscraped only on the middle of his top lip, while momentarily rearranging his lank hair into a downward sweep. If anything, we get more allusions to local jingoism, which the banally cynical trotting out of John Williamson’s song “Hey True Blue” to curry working-class favour at a political rally. Even moreso was an uproariously unexpected moment where Ui cribs from Johnny Farnham lyrics in the middle of a duplicitously impassioned public speech.
Mostly what we have here is a modern yet timeless setting, one which eschews contemporary potshots or topical allusions in favour of a robust approach to the material on its own terrifying merits. It is a funny, disturbing, engrossing and excoriating look at business and unionism, crime and extortion, blackmail and political carpetbaggery. It is especially an examination of spin and rhetoric, the slick brazenness required on the one hand, and the white-knuckle determination on the other, that is required to lie to someone’s face and dare them to call you out on it… while you have a knife to their throat, that is. Sometimes metaphorically, but often literally.
Director Kip Williams appears to have taken an approach inspired by Brecht’s famous “alienation technique” of Epic Theatre, but added his own multimedia twist to it, “21st Century Alienation” one might say, if that’s not too obvious a label. Brecht advocated the use of transparent stagecraft that eschewed any pretense of naturalism or the fourth wall, with actors remaining visible onstage even when not performing, so as to disrupt any illusion that what the audience was watching was ever anything other than artifice. This was in the hope that theatregoers would respond more directly to the ideas being presented than be swept away by the motion of the plot, and thus to always be aware that it was a play.
Williams may not adhere to the letter of this notion, but his staging certainly leaves the artifice of theatre largely undisguised, with actors waiting or changing in dressing-rooms that sit partly visible in the wings, just barely offstage. Most notable, however, is the use of cameras to frequently project live video onto a cinematic screen behind the actors. We have seen this technique in other shows in this venue such as Benedict Andrews’ production of Genet’s The Maids with Cate Blanchett, for example. It has a risk of seeming to pander to those who have come to see plays with movie-star leads and want to make sure their famous faces can still be clearly seen, even from the “cheap” seats, as it were.
While it is hard to ever completely discount this impression, Williams has certainly diversified the use of the live projections to create a multitude of effects. From steadicam shots vertiginously circling a roundtable restaurant conversation in the opening sequence, walking-and-talking scenes as actors traverse backstage areas before entering the auditorium, and impressionistic close-ups of body parts and tangential pieces of action to split the audience’s focus from stage to screen. While it may seem a gimmick, Williams never allows the usage of the camera to stagnate, with almost every instance imparting some new twist. One scene takes place almost entirely offstage, capturing an intimate moment between two characters in one of the aforementioned semi-visible dressing rooms. By comparison, some dizzyingly moments come into play, such as a camera plunging down from the rafters on an extendable arm to give us a dramatic zoom into and then pull-out from Weaving’s face, as Ui lays prone on the stage in a moment of existential panic.
Even some modest special effects are created in-camera, such as shooting a clump of actors standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the screen itself, during one of Ui’s speeches, replicating the visible number of people behind them to create a the impression of a large crowd at a political rally. Even some rudimentary video splicing is used to good effect in creating a multitude of ghostly apparitions at one point. Fortunately, however, the cameras, with their operators openly visible as part of a Brechtian nod, are not omnipresent, and fortunately at many key points, Williams lets them rest to allow the actors and their powers of oratory alone command the stage.
If there are any critique to be made of the production, it is perhaps merely a question of pacing. The opening 40 minutes to an hour of the show are a fast-paced flurry of aggressively entertaining theatricality, with punchy scenes filled with flair and action, shot through with lashings of black humour and some very flashy acting. As the play goes on, the story mellows into a more sedate and contemplative slow-burn political thriller and character study, and for some this might seem a tad stodgy after such giddying highs at the launch.
It is perhaps an unavoidable element of the material, and this is not to say that the play remains anything other than captivating, but if for no other reason the change in pace and tone makes the befuddling choice to stage this bladder-bursting show without an interval somewhat questionable. It is an understandable approach for shorter plays in which maintaining a taut tightrope of dramatic tension is paramount, but with no equivalent narrative justification there was a danger of making even as captivating a production as this potentially drag. Also, at the risk of sounding like I am only catering to the granny squad with such considerations, it should be noted that the use of theatrical blanks in several scenes involving gunfire are very loud, and those with sensitive hearing or a nervous disposition should be forewarned.
The show contains some excellent turns from the nuanced Ursula Yovich, the pleasingly brittle Anita Hegh, the hilarious Mitchell Butel and the priceless Peter Carroll, as well as the redoubtable Colin Moody and Ivan Donato as Ui’s most terrifying thugs. With such a talented ensemble cast around him, it almost seems redundant to say that Hugo Weaving delivers some of his best work in the title role. Yet of course, Weaving is nothing short of remarkable, bringing all of his patented menace and malice into the part, equally paired with his abundant charm and subtlety of performance in making this peach of a role nuanced and outlandish in almost the same ragged breath.
In a rare clean-shaven performance for Sydney stages, Weaving leans into the gift of his marvelously sculptured face, contorting it into an hypnotic parade of sneers and malevolent grimaces, with the most menacing eyebrows in showbusiness working overtime. His characterisation of Ui is spellbinding, a crude, brutal man who wants to be taken seriously, with a pathological lust for respect almost as much as for power. Not so much a mastermind as a master of determination, to succeed by any means necessary.
To this end he improves himself, upgrading his wardrobe from grungy singlets to sharps suits, and receiving coaching on public presentation in a hilarious scene with Butel as a stereotypically pretentious theatre director. Weaving puts on a rough-hewn British accent to play the foreign-born character in this otherwise Australianised production, yet it is a dialect which gradually evolves into something closer to his own. It is such that when the character has metamophosised into his most fully-formed state, he is at his slickest and most identifiably Hugo.
Although somehow just a whisker off being perfect, Williams’ new production of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui is a theatrical powerhouse, with bold stagecraft and an exciting cast all clustered around a stunning central performance. Were Hugo Weaving not already a star, it would be a star-making turn to be sure, in a play that is as immortal as it sadly is timely.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
by Bertholt Brecht | translation Tom Wright
Director Kip Williams
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre | 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 21 March – 28 April 2018