The latest in-house production in the Playhouse’s busy season is a theatre studies staple with original twists galore. Liverpool playwright Stephen Sharkey has taken Bertolt Brecht’s allegorical and darkly comic tale of Hitler’s rise to power and set it slap bang in 1930s Chicago, while German director Walter Meierjohann builds the menace and threat through the creation of a world of cartoonish Americana with a grand, operatic sense of scale.
Arturo Ui, played with captivating glee by Ian Bartholomew, is a hoodlum on the rise. His sweaty side-parted hair and toothbrush moustache illustrate he is Hitler in all but name, terrorising Chicago and bullying his way to the top throughout the state. Attempts to overthrow him are useless. We see that many communities don’t even try.
The over-the-top comic performances (the cast were encouraged to go larger than life) are twinned with Ti Green’s bold and deceptively complex set crammed with multimedia devices that make for a quite unrivalled visual experience. Every inch of the stage was used to create an unusually large sense of space – with no wings, props, sets and the very walls could be clearly seen to the sides. Film and visual media were used to striking effect. A surtitles screen (again, more commonly seen in opera performances) delivered share prices and scene-setting headlines above the action on stage.
Liverpool actress Leanne Best shone in a variety of female roles. It was great to see Best and other cast members known to the Playhouse stage, including Bartholomew, Robin Kingsland and Nick Moss, return. Veteran actor William Hoyland showed a wonderful gravitas and versatility, as a collection of compromised dramatic characters as well as a fine comic turn as a drunken actor hired by Ui to help him with his stage presence.
The only problem seemed to be a continual struggle with the broad Chicago accent from most of the cast.
It was interesting to see how Arturo Ui fitted in with the other productions from the Playhouse this year. Sharkey’s lively script delighted in its love of language, and as such seemed a fitting follow-on from McGough’s Tartuffe; Meierjohann’s assured, heavyweight direction was of a style not seen since Berkhoff’s Oedipus in the spring. And, like many a show before it in recent years at the venue, its timing and resonance was uncanny.
But let there be no doubt, this production is a behemoth all its own. Subtitled as a “gangster spectacle”, it’s not until you see it unfolding before your eyes you realise what an apt description that is.