There is an astonishing moment in the Abbey’s striking new production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that halts Bertolt Brecht’s splenetic parody in its tracks, a moment so chilling that icicles form in the air.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the mercurial Ui, a Chicago gangster and despot in the making, is taking ridiculous lessons from an image consultant – Des Cave’s washed-up actor – and playing with his mannerisms like a child with a loaded gun.
Suddenly he hits on a particular gesture, a salute so familiar, so easy to lampoon, that it shouldn’t shock us. But it does.
His arm held aloft with unnerving intensity, it slices through the innumerable references in Vaughan-Lawlor’s extraordinary performance – the crumpled posture of Richard III, the Runyonesque “Noo Yoik” accent, the hyper-animation of Charlie Chaplin – and delivers not just a stunning picture of Hitler but a lesson in the dangerous allure of spectacle.
Jimmy Fay’s production may arrive suffused with contextual parallels, carrying echoes of the 1929 depression and political disaffection into the present day, but its depiction of Chicago gangsters muscling in on the cauliflower business places its satiric emphasis squarely on America.
Conor Murphy’s design, a starkly impressive picture of industrial grey recesses lined with vegetable crates and meathooks, also finds room for American iconoclast Jasper Johns, whose American Flag looms over the stage, while Denis Clohessy’s thrillingly effective music extends a guest appearance to Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner , piercing though the play’s sham trial scene.
Such criticism may seem heavy-handed, particularly when the American political narrative has just entered one of its most hopeful chapters.
Similarly, Brecht’s allegory – written in 1941, before the true horror of the “final solution” – is stodgy with political detail, leadenly announcing its historical allusions, here delivered by George Seremba through a loudhailer.
For all the anti-illusion and distancing dictums of Brecht’s epic theatre, Fay’s production is most absorbing for its rich and rough aesthetic.
Presenting Ui as a 20ft judge, towering over a perversion of justice, may overstate the point, but it feeds the imagination.
Likewise, whatever Brecht’s misgivings about the seduction of performance, it’s the cast who hold the attention like a vice.
Ui’s clownish cavorting and paranoid twisting wouldn’t be so effective without Eamon Morrissey’s haunted stillness as the corrupted Dogsborough, or Aidan Kelly’s nerveless tough guy, Roma.
Kate Brennan and Malcolm Adams also distinguish themselves among an excellent supporting cast.
Ultimately, though, this is Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s show. His Ui uncurls at the play’s beginning like an awakening monster, tears through it with bravura (anyone who thinks he’s overdoing it should take a quick glance at the actual Hitler) and ends it on a pedestal surrounded by the corrupt, cowed and coerced. Brecht wrote the play to show how such creatures could be stopped.
The charismatic demon and the appalling, enthralling momentum of the show seem to say the opposite. Resistance is useless. PETER CRAWLEY