Mohammed Arthur Turay
About 18 months ago, Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati starred in a brilliant production of Shakespeare’s Pericles at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, in which there was more than a whiff of African despotism and a chilling atmosphere of human abuse. The actor now collaborates with the Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith, David Farr, on Brecht’s Nazi satire in a production that transposes the original setting of Chicago gangsterland to present-day Africa.
The clue to Brecht’s attitude to the events depicted is in the title. The rise of a tyrant must be and, more importantly, can be resisted with the will of the people (he toyed with the idea of calling it the “Irresistible Rise” but feared that the irony wouldn’t be recognised). Tragically, his call to awareness has not been heeded and parallels with recent and current regimes (you decide who they are) are only too clear and obvious.
The cauliflower battlefields of Chicago provided Brecht with his thinly-disguised parody of the rise of Adolf Hitler, and the key events in the transmogrification of parliamentary democracy in post-World War I Germany to a one-party state are cleverly charted. The transposition to a non-specific African setting never obscures the play’s origins, so closely-modelled is it on the historic events surrounding the fall of the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi party and the annexation of Austria, and the production is helped in this by the use of Ralph Mannheim’s classic translation, whose eloquence shines brilliantly amongst all the squalor. Somehow, we can appreciate the production’s contemporary relevance without losing sight of Brecht’s original targets.
Many years ago, I sat in a small room about three feet away from Ekkehard Schall, then the leading actor of the Berliner Ensemble (as well as Brecht’s son-in-law) when he gave an impromptu rendition of Ui’s great speech beginning with Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” spinning hypnotically into a full-blown Hitlerian rant. The performance, in German, was terrifying and it felt like being within spitting distance of the monster himself.
Msamati is a fascinating actor, and very watchable, but his Ui lacks an edge of unreason and horror. The famous scene in which an old Shakespearian actor puts Ui through a media training session, transforming him from stuttering amateur to accomplished if risible orator, draws a certain amount of laughs but overall the comedy is muted and, while it’s an accomplished performance, we never see the complete psychosis of the dictator.
The rest of the cronies, bullyboys and victims are strongly portrayed, with Nyasha Hatendi’s limping killer Givola (it’s not difficult to see who he represents) and Joseph Mydell’s tired and finally resigned Dogsborough particularly striking. The simple set by Ti Green, which flows between locations with the aid of verbal scene-setting, is highly effective, as is a grinding background of music (Keith Clouston) punctuated frequently by ringing gun-shots.
Altogether, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and swift-moving new take on a great play, although a little fore-knowledge of the history might help you keep up with the complicated manoeuvrings through vegetable politics.