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Evil and apathy

Bertolt Brecht's 1941 parable about Hitler's rise to power concludes with a warning that's especially relevant today. Timothy Ramsden reports

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

By Bertolt Brecht

Colchester Mercury Theatre

April 21-May 7

Tickets: 01206 573948

Janice Dunn sees as timely her revival of Brecht's political parable at a time of Right-wing resurgence across Europe and widespread ignorance of Auschwitz. The play compares Al Capone's expansion from Chicago to take over nearby Cicero with Adolf Hitler's March 1938 invasion of Austria.

Although he wrote the play in 1941, Brecht focused on the Nazis' early years: "How it takes everyone not to take responsibility for this (HitlerUi's rise) to happen".

Dunn notes the play's detail, how Arturo and his gangsters are called in by the Cauliflower Trust, standing for Germany's landed gentry, who thought they could use him for short-term advantages. Then there's Dogsborough, the equivalent of Hindenburg. His initial power empties till he is an "absolute shell".

Brecht, a gangster story fan, revels in the parable, says Dunn. "These gangster characters don't care, they are on the outskirts of society and will use anyone anyway they want. Brecht saw the chaotic, haphazard element, the lucky breaks and chances in the early rise of the Nazis. It's a change from the cold, calculated Nazi image - the flip-side, and so more frightening."

Audiences can be seduced by Arturo. Dunn believes Brecht pushes audiences that way before they realise the horrific elements. In particular, there's the moment an unnamed woman calls for help. Things are suddenly serious.

Audiences won't make a direct response, mirroring the inaction of people onstage.

There's a 14-strong cast at Colchester; Dunn is aiming for a theatrical epic. There is also an ensemble feel, which prevents Arturo becoming too much of a star turn. The role has been played in the past as overtly Hitler, a Chaplinesque clown or a gangster. Dunn believes audiences are too sophisticated to need moustaches or goose-stepping to point up the parallel.

Brecht also distinguishes between Arturo's henchmen, based on other leading Nazis. "Givola is a smiling assassin, playing low status, apparently gentle, but he pushes Arturo, has political savvy and flashes of brutality.

Giri is bright and dynamic, but absolutely psychopathic, finding the crimes he commits hysterical, while Roma appears smooth and in control; a right-hand man. In mafia terms, he's the consigliere (councilman), strong and sensible. But he doesn't look out for his back."

Dunn refers to a famous scene, where Arturo visits an old actor to learn new, crowd-pleasing tricks. Such showy histrionics unleash the potential held in by Arturo's lack of self-belief. "He knows he needs to impress the little guy and he can't get enough of it."

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