Time for our annual pilgrimage to Chichester, and this year, for the first time, we visited the Minerva Theatre as part of our weekend. Whereas I always find negotiating the foyers of the Festival Theatre a privileged joy, I didn’t get the same feeling at the Minerva. Once upstairs and in the circle area outside the auditorium entrance, I found the atmosphere stuffy and hot; and the bar area, which is the back side – if you’ll pardon the expression – of the bar in the Brasserie, was unattended – twenty minutes before curtain up at the matinee – not a good sign. We went into the Brasserie to get attention of the bar staff on that side, to be met with a bunch of guys who looked quizzically at our attempt to get a little glass of wine, as if it were a great inconvenience in their “clearing-up-after-lunch” routine. Come on Chichester, you can welcome your punters better than that!
Mrs Chrisparkle and I haven’t seen a lot of Brecht, but this is one play I have always wanted to experience in a theatre. I read it years ago, during the time when I basically read every play I could get my hands on. Written rapidly in 1941 whilst Brecht was in exile in Finland, and unperformed until 1958, the play portrays the rise of an infamous Chicago gangster from the kind of guy people used to laugh at when he came into the room to the kind of guy who could manipulate entire populations to his own wicked ends. It works well on two levels – as the story of the gangster taking over the vegetable trade in Chicago and Cicero; but of course chiefly as an allegory of the rise of Nazism under Hitler from 1929 to 1938. The original UK production didn’t take place until 1967 when Ui was played by Leonard Rossiter. I bet he was brilliant in the role.
The Minerva is a little like a miniature Festival theatre – Roman amphitheatre-shaped, and you have to walk down onto the stage area and around and back up again to find your seat. It’s rather cramped, and not terribly comfortable – at the interval plenty of people were apologising to the person in front for kneeing them in the back during the first act – but the sight lines are perfect. As you enter the auditorium, the stage is set up as a speak-easy, with a group of musicians giving it some 1930s style jazz round the piano; and the tables are beset with hoodlums, all sucking on stage cigarettes which, I have to say, smell repulsive when you’re that close – they’re like cannabis just with a shorter odour life. The play begins in Brecht’s finest tradition, with his breaking down the scene by having an MC address us directly and introduce the gangsters on stage individually, so you know precisely what to expect from them throughout the play.
In many respects it is an extraordinary work, in that it takes the dreadful events of 1930s Germany and re-presents them in a different country under a alternative scenario of lawlessness, but there is no mistaking whatsoever Brecht’s allegorical intentions. His original version of the play has each scene preceded or interrupted by a some written words which tell you precisely the events in history that the scene is meant to represent. In Jonathan Church’s production, he has tried to make it not quite so Brechtian by demoting these information pieces to a double-page spread in the programme. Mrs C and I didn’t discover this until the interval, which is a shame as it would have given the first half scenes an added dimension for us. The play is also written in verse, another distancing Brechtian device, making it on the one hand slightly less realistic but also giving it oddly more gravitas.
It’s also a very nasty play. In this cityscape, if you’re not a gangster, a murderer, a swindler or a thief, then you’re a victim of at least one of the above. There’s no scope for concealing the mental and physical violence; and it brilliantly shows you how a population can get caught up in thrall to an evil man through fear, intimidation, greed and cowardice. Brecht certainly did the world a service when he wrote this play, and if it alerts just one person to the possibility of a new Ui rising to the top of some dunghill who somehow acts to prevent it, then who knows how many lives it could save. The final scene of the play is horrifyingly well done and grimly looks to a vile future. The play ends with a brief epilogue as Ui slowly starts to come out of character and take the voice of the actor playing him, warning us not to be complacent as the bitch that bred this bastard is still breeding.
And that actor in question is Henry Goodman, whom I believe we haven’t seen before, but I have heard a lot of Good Things about him. His performance is nothing short of remarkable. Ui completely consumes him from head to toe, inside and out. He starts off as a wretched little man, the butt of jokes, sunken inside himself like a warped parody of Uriah Heep, but without the apparent humility. As his fortunes improve he visibly swells in height and breadth; his clothes become smarter and better fitting; his confidence grows; his enunciation clarifies and he just becomes a bigger entity until finally he is the full-grown monster. All along, of course, his appearance develops slightly more Hitleresque nuances scene by scene; with the addition of an insignia on his armband, his arms and feet movements as taught by the actor, his sleeked hair, his military clothing, his violent voice, his manic jackboots. It’s horrifying and fascinating, and really drives home the message that this is how evil can come to power. It’s an incredible performance. He also makes the best out of the stylised humour of the play, which personally I found hard to appreciate. The characters are so vile that to laugh with them is to demean oneself. Nevertheless, the majority of the audience found the humour in the role borderline hysterical. Maybe that in itself is evidence of how a charismatic approach can sweep people along in its path.
The acting throughout is of an extremely high quality. The performances of Ui’s three main henchmen are all first class. David Sturzaker as Givola in particular conveyed the “Best Supporting Evil” role, with his vicious ruthlessness cushioned in his otherwise soft and polite floristry trade. You can see how he is the essential nice guy turned bad, and boy is he bad. Michael Feast also gives a superb performance as Ui’s lieutenant, Roma, and his eventual come-uppance almost makes you feel sorry for him – but not quite. Joe McGann’s creepy Giri with the hat fetish is a chilling assassin. His doubling up as the decent investigator O’Casey gives him another meaty scene. The doubling up of William Gaunt as both the corrupt Dogsborough – as whom he is very convincing – and the judge didn’t quite work so well for me as it looked simply as though Dogsborough had landed the prime job of being the judge; particularly as the judge is clearly also corrupt and legitimises the trumped up case against the wretched defendant Fish. I didn’t get the sense of there being two different characters. Amongst the other supporting roles, I was really impressed with the performance of Rolf Saxon as Clark, devious leader of the Cauliflower Trust, another extremely good realisation of a character that on the face of it is laudable and trustworthy but underneath is a dissembling villain.
It is an excellent production of an unpleasant play. I can’t actually say I enjoyed it, but it probably should be compulsory viewing for all young people reaching voting age. Freedom is fragile, democracy easily manipulated. Brecht’s allegory is as relevant today as it ever has been.
P.S. As befits the first sunny weekend in what feels like a decade, Chichester was looking lovely. The matinee of Arturo Ui chucked out at 5.25pm and with a 7.30 start for Kiss Me Kate looming, we didn’t have much time to idle over choosing a dinner location. With the new Marcos having too-expensive-a-menu for simple people from Northampton to contemplate, and with the George and Dragon pub being fully booked, we decided to chance the first place that looked remotely suitable. This turned out to be Clinchs restaurant (there’s no apostrophe in their name, whether that’s right or wrong) and it turned out to be a fairly bizarre experience. After a friendly welcome we sat at comfortable seats on a nice big table and quickly received the menus. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and it was very good, nicely chilled; and a recognisable label from supermarket shelves. Ordering took a while; but not as long as the meal did. In the meantime we were amused by the amateur service; a waitress, arms piled high with freshly prepared meals, standing in the middle of the restaurant shouting back to the kitchen “GINA! Where am I taking this lot?” Plates were getting taken to the wrong tables; people were waiting to be served whilst the waitresses were chin-wagging with friends in the garden. We were starting to get a little anxious but at 6.40 it arrived. The food was superb. We scoffed it and asked for the bill, and fifteen minutes later, with no bill presented, just went to the cash desk to pay. The area behind the till was awash with half open bottles of lemonade, wine, juice etc, all bearing Sainsbury’s labels and looking as scruffy as your own kitchen at 2.30am after a long hard party. This new restaurant has the makings of something good, but needs professionalising up a bit!