Like Women of Troy, Ainsworth knows how to transform a space. Jarman Studio 1 is very much a standard studio but he and Woods have turned it into a sort of ramshackle cabaret. Unpainted cardboard dominates the room, from the amazing backdrop constructed of boxes that is reminiscent of a skyscraper skyline to the props and even our tables were cardboard boxes. The backdrop works particularly well with the lighting, as shadowy as the dealings of these Chicagoan gangsters.
I’ve read the play before and whilst the allegory of the rise of Hitler is entertaining enough in a very short read, I did wonder whether it would come across as a bit of a museum piece. Also having studied Drama at A-Level and university, I am rather sick of Brecht and that thrown-about word ‘Brechtian’. However the performance is so entertaining that it overcomes this, focusing on the gangsters and city corruption rather than being enslaved to the allegory. The play is set in thirties Chicago where the gangsters all want to get in on the ‘cauliflower racket’, wheeling and dealing vegetables and roping in reluctant government types. Ui sees his chance to control the shady business and thus rise to power. There’s a lot of characters and politics that would require a flick through a History book- a warehouse fire mirrors the Reichstag fire, for example- so I think the focus on the gangsters and the farcical corruption of the play was the right choice.
Having said that, Duncan Mitchell’s performance as Arturo Ui is excellent- one of the best lead performances I’ve seen in a play. Whether he has a natural knack for physicality I don’t know; the directors do a fine job on the physicality of the whole ensemble. Ui comes across as so greasy and vile, having the obvious Hitler mannerisms of a shouty voice and slicked hair but with his own mannerisms as well; crouching and slouching a bit like an animal, even a bit hunchbacky. There’s a brilliant scene in which an Actor (Tiago Luzio) uses Shakespeare and Shakespearean hammy acting to teach Ui how to walk, talk and sit. Luzio clearly relishes the chance to be flamboyant and makes the role stand out in a show which demands multi-roling from almost all its cast. Though all the cast do this brilliantly, other multi-rolers that particularly stood out for me were Tom Tokley, Katie McKenna and Jonathan Hutchings. Also Elliot Liburd as Ernesto Roma, Ui’s right hand man and Juno Gurung as Giri, Ui’s dodgier and more scheming back-up.
Another great bit of multi-roling is during a succession of days in court as witnesses are called to the stand in the Reichstag trial. It’s boisterous and funny, accompanied by a brilliant bit of drumming. Well done to Danyal Ince on the drums as the recorded jazzy instruments blend well with the live drums.
The whole night ended with a bang as the ‘speakeasy’ was raided. Ainsworth and Woods make the most of collaboration by creating a play that seems doubly strong in a shared vision and being able to have so many different elements that made it a great piece of immersive theatre. Dare I say, irresistible.