It's not too often that a Brecht play is staged in the West End and this Jonathan Church production, transferred after a successful run in Chichester Festival Theatre, lends itself well. Brecht wrote the "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" in 1941 as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany. He was heading for America and uses the Hollywood Al Capone style gangster movies as an allegory to satirise the rise of Hitler.
Arturo Ui is a wretched, fearful and hate filled creature. Scared of his own shadow and desperate to be respected, he consciously molds these traits into a persona that he begins to fall in love with. Remarkably others fall for it too and Ui, together with his henchmen, plan a protection racket of the Chicago cauliflower industry.
Brecht has a lot of fun here, and Henry Goodman, the Jewish actor in the role of Arturo Ui, revels in the romp. There are nods to Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" and Mel Brooks films. Thespians are mocked too as our mobster demagogue sees himself in the great Shakespearian roles. He recites grandiose passages in front of the mirror whist honing his oratory style. Alistair Beaton, the satirist behind "The Trial of Tony Blair" and "Follow My Leader", has tweaked the script for this production so we see a bit of Berlusconi in Ui - a clown who somehow has an extraordinary amount of power.
Therein lay the politics of this play, as spelt out in its title: that the rise of such a character really could have been resisted. Dramatic constraint focuses us more on the failings, and complicity, at the top of German society. The play mirrors the political forces and events that shaped Hitler's rise to power. The Cauliflower Trust represent the capitalists, Dogsborough represents Hindenburg and Dockshilfeskandal represents the corruption scandal that ruined Hinderburg and strengthened Hitler. As events march on through the Reichstag Fire and the Night of the Long Knives, sections of society begin to be repressed and framed.
Although generally subtle, the trademark Brechtian techniques are there. In order to break the audience from its voyeuristic inertia, Brecht seeks to remind the audience that just as you are watching actors craft a play, you too can have agency in the outside world. That agency is urgent, with the play's most famous line as prescient as ever: "Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."
Outside the theatre, within the space of two miles and three weeks, the English Defence League were marching. The newspaper stands carry reports from Greece of an extremist enigmatic Nazi leader, arrested in his pyjamas for murder, money-laundering, blackmail and illegal possession of arms. If Brecht were around today, I suspect he wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is playing at the Duchess Theatre, London, until 7 December.