From stand-up comedian to red-nosed humanitarian ambassador, knight of the realm to serious Shakespearian actor, Lenny Henry has already orchestrated more hits than your average mob boss. Now, in a timely revival at the Donmar, he’s stepped into the shoes of an actual mobster – Bertolt Brecht’s demagogue Arturo Ui. A charismatic, self-aggrandising strongman determined to seize power by fair means or foul (although, he’s rather less keen on the fair).
And the funny man who made his name with comic impersonations on New Faces makes a pretty persuasive Chicago gangster. Although he doesn’t quite achieve a truly furious menace, he effects a convincing throaty snigger, a bombastic charm, and a larger than life loping physicality that is entertaining to watch. He’s at his best when dissembling in front of dubious spectators – his natural charm shines through as he sets about selling fake news and, in due course, making the country great again.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is of course entirely deliberate. For although set in the corrupt Windy City of the 1930s, the play was written in 1941. Brecht, having fled Germany after Hitler’s ascent to power, watched as the Nazis hateful nationalism violently conquered their European neighbours. Waiting on his visa to escape the continent to America, he penned the tale of a mob boss’s takeover of the city cauliflower industry as a satire on the rise of fascism, and a warning to his new homeland of pugnacious, jingoistic leaders.
Simon Holland Roberts, Lenny Henry and Philip Cumbus (photos by Helen Maybanks)
Writer Bruce Norris’s adaptation has refocussed much of its ire on the rise of a more recent (and orange) head of state across the pond – with allusions to Trump liberally weaved throughout. Eliciting cheers when the audience gleefully spots them, they sail a little too close to pantomime. The parallels in the character are obvious enough, without the need to parody Trump’s own lines.
Beyond the serious message, though, there’s a lot of fun to be had. It’s not often you arrive at your seat to find yourself in a makeshift speakeasy, with the star of the show standing by your chair shooting the breeze with the person at the table behind. And the playful blurring of the boundary between stage and audience continues throughout to hilarious effect, with punters engaged as corpses, defendants, voters, and even victims of the mob, marched out to meet their maker.
There are some fine supporting performances too, especially from Michael Pennington as the weak, manipulated bureaucrat, and Justine Mitchell in several guises, from the exasperated lawyer to the disparaging journalist’s wife.
Arturo Ui doesn’t quite manage to pull off a successful hit on this occasion, but the patrons won’t be calling on Lenny to make any complaints. You never know what might befall them if they do…
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at London’s Donmar Warehouse until 17 June