First published in The Times, Wednesday June 7 2017
By coincidence, Dundee Rep’s community production of Brecht’s anti-fascist allegory is running at the same time as a major revival at the Donmar Warehouse. Where Brecht’s 1941 “parable play” parodied Hitler’s rise to power through the story of a small-time gangster who assumes control over the Chicago cauliflower racket in the 1930s, the London production, starring Lenny Henry, draws explicit parallels with the campaigning rhetoric and behaviour in office of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Clearly there is something about the current global political climate that makes the playwright’s depiction of a seductive lout sweeping to power more germane than ever. Yet, while there is currently no shortage of democratically elected world leaders with autocratic tendencies on which to base Brecht’s antihero, Joe Douglas’s production for the Rep is no less chilling for the director’s having declined to make specific contemporary allusions.
The show – touring small venues across Dundee and Fife – is based on the 1964 translation by George Tabori (given added polish by Alistair Beaton, the Scottish writer), which jettisons some of the more ponderous details in Brecht’s original in favour of the dramatic essentials. There are still longueurs, particularly during the play’s second half depiction of the annexing of the town of Cicero, Illinois, but the dynamic ensemble playing and the incorporation of songs, music and heightened theatrics further invigorate the action.
The community hall backdrop is well suited to Brechtian minimalism and the playwright’s scorn of the fourth wall. With the action performed in the round, audience members are frequently asked to participate in crowd scenes. The modest props stacked against the walls might just as well be leftovers from an earlier event at the venue. During the interval, the cast are to be found milling around in the foyer or enjoying the late evening sunshine outside.
Within this rough-and-ready atmosphere, and despite the play’s messy structure, the production values are high. Ian Dow’s stark lighting creates an ambience that is part sleazy cabaret and part interrogation room. The nine-strong cast is required to switch among an array of roles, which at times proves confusing, though there are standout turns from Irene Macdougall as Dogsborough, the corrupt mayor, and Emily Winter as Givola, Arturo’s smooth, Goebbels-like spin doctor. While this is very much an ensemble effort, Brian James O’Sullivan, in the title role as well as the show’s musical director, gives a fine, understated portrayal of Ui’s transition from upstart to iconic dictator, which provokes occasional ripples of disquiet in the hall.
Touring to June 17. Dundeerep.co.uk