Written in 1940-41, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-fascist parable blends a scalding satire of the Germany he was escaping with a movie-mediated idea of the world he was fleeing to – the freewheeling America he’d seen in films such as Little Caesar, Scarface and The Public Enemy.
Into this he stirred great dollops of Shakespearian drama – most obviously Julius Caesar, Richard III and Macbeth.
The result? A funny and even frightening drama that is one of Brecht’s best known and most frequently studied yet is infrequently performed. This Sydney Theatre Company production is the first professional staging in Sydney in 30 years.
Directed by Kip Williams from a Tom Wright’s translation-adaptation, this staging strips away the overt references to Nazi Germany and instead draws dark parallels between Ui’s world and that of contemporary Australia: a democracy where the interests of the few outweigh those of the many; where political leaders resort to verballing the voiceless through their chosen media megaphones; where tower cranes sprout from mounds of dirty money.
Williams’ vision for the show spans theatre and film. The set (by Robert Cousins) is an open soundstage, flanked by costume racks and visible changing rooms and dominated by a large projection screen centred on the back wall.
Roving camera operators capture details of scenes playing in the space (and occasionally offstage) and relay them to the screen, with everything mixed on the fly.
Williams choreographs action that is swift, violent (I lost count of the gunshots) and frequently bloody.
Composer Stefan Gregory’s score contributes hugely to hurling the story forward, a soundtrack that opens with incendiary drum rolls suggesting the lawless jungle from which Ui emerges. Later it fills the air with ominous fanfares as his grasp on power tightens.
Weaving dazzles as Ui, charting his evolution from wharfie kingpin to manicured megalomaniac with relish. With his heavy East End accent and demeanour, he seems to spring from a line including Bob Hoskins’ Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, Alan Ford’s Brick Top (from Guy Ritchie’s crime caper Snatch) and just about everyone Ray Winstone has ever been hired to play.
Plot parallels aside, this production keeps the figures of Ui and Hitler entirely separate, though Weaving is granted a Chaplinesque nod to the Fuhrer while shaving in the mirror.
He is vigorously supported throughout, most notably by Colin Moody as the sadist Roma, Ivan Donato (Giri) and Ursula Yovich as Ui’s media handler Givola.
Peter Carroll is excellent as Dogsborough, the clean-skin politician bought for a slice of the fruit ‘n’ veg market action, and Anita Hegh brings deep feeling to the final scenes as the grieving Betty Dullfleet in a scene echoing Richard III’s seduction of Lady Anne.
Mitchell Butel sparkles in a mischievous portrayal of a boy wonder theatre director who teaches Ui how to work the crowd. He had the opening night industry crowd in stitches – though not for long. Played without interval (about two hours and ten), this memorable production builds a heavy thunderhead of menace, one that casts a disturbing shadow on the audience and creates the feeling we are helpless to resist.