Back in London for a few days means… theatre moments to add to my “little book of life”. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Guards at the Taj and Obsession were some of those. If Obsession didn’t reach out my expectations, I can only encourage you to go to Harold Pinter theatre to see Imelda Staunton, Conleth Hill, Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway before they leave the stage in the care of Andrew Scott and his companions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
As for Guards at the Taj, no famous names (yet?) on the stage of Bush stage but… another fine piece of art: ‘only’ two actors (Darren Kuppan and Danny Ashok) on a minimalistic stage, driven by words of Rajiv Joseph and directed by Jamie Lloyd. Even though it was the second time I was seeing the play, it turned out to be as moving and breath taking as the first day. The friendship between the characters is both the funniest and the saddest I’ve ever seen, given the story. Not to mention that Lloyd’s adaptation was also the first one ever done in Europe.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is also a first on its own. As the story goes by, you realize that there’s more than meets the eye, just like I found out during that preview performance of Bertold Brecht’s masterpiece on May, 1st.
Artuto Ui is set in the USA during the Prohibition… with a personal touch from Brecht since the play is in fact a satire of the Nazi system and its sadly well-known leader. Just like Charlie Chaplin with The Dictator, Brecht saw things coming from afar and was eventually forced to flee Germany to spare his family’s lives as well as his own. Written in less than a month, the play describes the ascension of a – let’s admit it - not so bright gangster until his – sort of – investiture.
As we enter the famous Donmar Warehouse stage, I’ve already got a smile on my face: looks like we’ll feel like we’re part of the set…. again. In the stalls area, chairs and tables had been put and staff members came ahead of us to take us to our seat. Making the audience feel close to the actors and the action is one of Simon Evans’ – the director – very specific touch that I’ve always loved. He had previously used that technique in both The Dazzle and Fool for Love and I was curious to find out what he could do once outside the Found 111 theatre.
Well… this time… he took his favourite game to the next level. A very VERY high level that makes me wonder what he’ll surprise his audience with next time. Given what I’ve experienced tonight, be sure I’ll be there to see that…
While everyone is being seated, some actors are already on set, talking, arguing… until one of them comes to our corner, introducing himself as Manny, and asks us for a favour later in the evening : just raise our hand to stand as witnesses on his behalf. I smiled at the idea of being of any help in the ‘action’.
In fact, many people in the audience helped the comedians on stage during the 2 hours and a half-ish: sometimes with a gesture, sometimes with a word, sometimes by staying on their seat, sometimes by literally being in the centre of the stage with the cast. One man ended up being the defendant on a trial. I glanced at the woman who was with him and she smiled all the time. She could indeed be proud as he played his part juuuust right. I’ve never seen a play with so many audience people involved and this is definitely much more fun than being an outside observant.
And it will turn out to be one of those lessons learned during the evening. Don’t stare. Act. Do something. But you’ll get my point later, I’m sure.
It appears to me that it must also be fun for the actors to interact each night with a different audience… leading, at times, to funny moments.
At one point, people are given the choice of standing up or… not. If not, you have to take your chair at the centre of the stage and sit back on it. That evening, a woman’s voice was heard from the back of the room: our chairs don’t move!, leading to a collective laugh… and an improvisation from Manny who offered her a very-much-not-attached-to-the-ground chair.
No worries though if you’re seated in the circle area… you’ll have your part to play as well.
During the whole performance, we are taken for a ride with Mr laugh and Mrs fear. As an example, there’s a scene where Arturo Ui hires an actor to improve his speech skills as well as his bearing. That scene, the interaction between the actors – as well a piece of underwear (sometimes, it’s all in the little details, eh!) - is truly hilarious. Then… you realize that some gestures are still – and will always be – present in everyone’s minds as a reminder of something evil and scary.
Major praises have to be given to the cast for their performance. Or… performanceS. If Lenny Henry (Arturo Ui), Lucy Ellinson (Emmanuele ‘Manny’ Giri), Guy Rhys (Giuseppe Givola) and Giles Terera (Ernesto Roma) play major parts and therefore brilliantly stay in character during the whole play, the rest of the cast comes and goes as different characters – sometimes up to 5 - without any trouble…
But our cast does not only act. They also… sing. But do not worry, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is no musical though. Being a music addict (after all, this blog is initially a musical one), I could only be happy to find a few music notes here and there. All our comedians show us their best voice: from 1913’s Irish traditional Oh Danny Boy to the very recent Rag’n’Bone Man’s Human, I identified 11 songs from different decades and music styles… Gloria Obianyo’s rendition of Human and Praise You were just perfect and I give special hats off to Lucy Ellinson for that surprising difference between her gangster voice and her singing voice!
Directing, staging, acting, singing… thinking that’d be all? Nope. Other credits have to be given to the costumes team (Yvonne Milnes) and the lighting designer (Howard Harrison). The latter does an amazing job given the number of actors and constant energy level on the set and has a talent to… erm… highlight the cast.
Thinking about it, I realized that even if I 100% knew what to do when we were given the choice to stand up or stay seated, I had – earlier – raised my hand to help a character that’d play an important part in the rise of Arturo Ui. But hey, after all… it’s just a play.
But… is it really? Over the last few months, it has seemed to me that the world is changing. Two times I woke up on a Monday morning only to find out something I never imagined happening had actually happened. UK’s Brexit vote and – much worse – Trump becoming President.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was written 76 (!) years ago but it has never been THAT actual. And I probably can’t write a better or more brilliant conclusion than Bruce Norris’ one in his 2017 adaptation of Brecht’s masterpiece.
Because that night at Donmar was in fact all that. Sure, tonight there was a play at Donmar but not just a play. Tonight wasn’t a hint at Hitler. It was a hint at something, at someone much closer, very much more in the present time. At someone who says that his country – as Arturo said for himself – “needs a wall” and who’s “gonna make this country great again”!
Let me write Norris’ words for you:
Let me write Norris’ words for you:
“The moral of the story, so to speak,
Is sometimes you can’t turn the other cheek
We faced a fucker once like this before
We came together, fought a bloody war.
And yes, that time we won. But who can say
What me might do if he came back today?
Or… could it be that he’s already here?
Two thousand sixteen: what a shitty year.
We vote them into power, then we wonder
How me made such a catastrophic blunder.
It looks as if we’re fighting once again,
So fingers crossed, and hopefully, we’ll win –
But even if we do, one thing’s for certain:
There’ll always be another.”
Arturo Ui shook me. Much. I guess that’s why, once that final monologue pronounced, I dropped my pen on the table and my hand started shaking and I was holding back tears. 2016 was sure as shitty year but as France’s new President is about to be elected on this May 8th, I’m nothing but terrified at the potential outcome of a blonde extremist becoming President. Next Monday, I’ll surely think back on that night at the Donmar, no matter what the outcome is. And feel relieved. Or worried.
Let’s ask ourselves if a change of power is really the thing we need. To me, it’s not. It’s not worth the risk of possibly going through what our grandparents (or great grandparents) – not to mention anyone who was just ‘different’ from some medieval thinkers’ standards - went through 70 years ago. Not again.
So… no. That night, I decided not to stand for Ui and remained seated and would do it again. I’ll say “no!” to him and his gangster fellas. But if you, my friend, are asked by someone if you want to see The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, just say yes and go because THAT is worth it. The only risk is that you may end up on a West end stage as a junior actor. And also – very much important - feel free to stand up. But only to applause that amazing cast, an inventive director and all the people involved in Arturo Ui for their incredible work.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – From April 21st to June 17th 2017 (Donmar Theatre)
Photo credits (except last one) : Helen Maybanks (Thanks Samantha!)
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui : https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/production/192/
Donmar Warehouse: https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/