The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui
Seen at Kirkton Community Centre, Dundee
touring until June 17
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
various dates until October 11
Reviewed by Mark Brown
At the end of Dundee Rep’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s famous parable The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, Brian James O’Sullivan (who plays the title role) removes his little, black toothbrush moustache and, in his own, Scottish voice, speaks Brecht’s memorable warning following the demise of Hitler: “Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard/ The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
This note of caution is as chilling in 2017 as it was when it was first spoken on stage in 1958. The electoral resurgence of fascism in countries such as France and Austria, to say nothing of the would-be stormtroopers of Jobbik in Hungary or the rise of ultra-nationalism in Poland, give Brecht’s play a sharp and continuing pertinence.
Watching director Joe Douglas’s urgent production playing in an uncomfortably cramped space to a very small audience in the Kirkton Community Centre (which is a short journey from the Dundee Rep Theatre), I couldn’t help but wonder about the logic behind this tour of community venues. Surely, in the case of Kirkton at least, it would have been better for both audience members and actors if resources had been expended on taking the community to the theatre, rather than the theatre to the community.
It is a tall order for the talented Rep ensemble to give full expression to their effervescent and musical production with two stanchions from the lighting rig planted in the middle of the performance area. That said, they tell Brecht’s story (in which the brutal twists and turns of Hitler’s rise to power are compared to the gangsterism of early-20th century Chicago) with both the starkness and the sardonic humour intended by the author.
The regular cross-gender casting of characters (such as Irene Macdougall as the Hindenburg stand-in Dogsborough and Martin McBride as the outwitted bourgeois Betty Dullfoot) fits nicely with the play’s emphatic theatricality. The consistent boldness of performance (not least by O’Sullivan as the increasingly fascistic Ui) exemplifies Brecht’s remarkable capacity to combine entertainment with uncompromising political commitment.
It is ironic that Dundee Rep should be touring Brecht’s great fable while, an hour northwest of the City of Discovery, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is staging JM Barrie’s Mary Rose. First presented in 1920, the Scottish writer’s ponderous ghost story belongs to the kind of turgid, 19th century theatrical realism that Brecht’s modernism set out to destroy.
A metaphorical contemplation of the tyranny of loss, Barrie’s supernatural tale involves the disappearance of the eponymous little English girl, who vanishes while at rest on a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides. Her father, the upright Mr Morland, dismisses the fearful local folklore about “the island that likes to be visited” as silly superstition. However, on his return to the islet after a fishing trip, he finds that his young daughter is, inexplicably, nowhere to be found.
The drama appeared dry and outdated when it was staged by the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh in 2008. Despite the best efforts of director Richard Baron, it is similarly uninviting now.
The fault is entirely the author’s. The requirement of an expository narrator (played, as Barrie himself, by the ever-excellent Alan Steele) underlines the tedious, novelish structure of the piece.
Designer Neil Warmington taps into the ethereal nature of the subject matter quite brilliantly, with a set comprised of absent walls and a solitary, sinister door. However, neither the design nor the uniformly fine actors (including Sara Clark Downie as an impressively uncomprehending Mary Rose) can overcome the inherent dreariness of Barrie’s theatrical form.
For tour details for The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, visit: dundeerep.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 11, 2017
© Mark Brown