Nicholas Hytner's 'Othello' and Jonathan Church's 'Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' prove afresh the power of live performance
I seem to have been sat in the darkness of a theatre much less in 2013, but two productions stand out for being particularly powerful: Jonathan Church’s version of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Othello, directed by Nicholas Hytner.
Of course, there were a couple of clangers along the way. The RSC’s Anthony and Cleopatra, directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, seemed to misfire spectacularly on all fronts. A stripped down production and some awkward reworking of the script didn’t help, but neither protagonist exactly courted much sympathy from any of the audience. A few moments after the interval aside, when there were glimmers of genuine pathos, Anthony seemed some sort of misogynist rather than the world’s greatest lover and even poor Cleopatra fared little better. Somewhere, I think some kind of point about gender relations was being raised, but the shift of the action to late eighteenth century St Dominique jarred and created too many inconsistencies. Which is a shame as if anyone should be making Shakespeare work it’s the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But Nicholas Hytner’s Othello at the National showed the power of Shakespeare. Hytner, too, takes liberties with the text, cutting ruthlessly where necessary, but the result was a dramatically compelling production. Often, I’ve found ‘eagerly anticipated’ productions something of a let down – perhaps such events will never live up to the hype – and so I approached with some reservations: Hytner’s Henry V (also starring Adrian Lester in the title role) was for me revolutionary, placing Shakespeare’s medieval history play in the world of the Iraq war with a startling pace, brutality and powerful message about politicians and war.
Othello did not disappoint. Set largely in a modern military compound, with echoes both of Iraq and of Afghanistan, the play hit all the right notes from the start. Venice seemed more like a military bunker, while other parts of the set were portacabins, often under the unnatural glare of fluorescent strip lights. This was a brutally masculine environment of heavy drinking, crudity and anger, quite different from the world portrayed in some recent productions. I’ve seen Desdemona’s death presented poetically and almost erotically: here her tragedy lacked any sense of beauty: beds were dressed in lurid polyester sheets, but her death became all the more poignant, as a loyal but vulnerable woman suffered needlessly.
As many who saw the production noted, this was as much a play about Iago as Othello. Vindictive, cruel and manipulative, Rory Kinnear as Iago was on an utterly compelling quest for revenge. Lester’s Othello had gravitas, and, even when silent, his ability to create a sense of presence on stage is quite sensational, and matched only by his incredible emotional range, from passionate lover and loyal military commander to spiteful and jealous, with a quite unnerving sense of anger. Like any great production of a tragedy, Othello was a man to fear and to pity, and one left with a sense that this was one of the productions of Othello which will be recalled for many years.
Unsurprisingly for one so admired, Hytner’s forthcoming departure from the National Theatre has been much reported. During his ten years or so at the helm, the National has become my favourite venue anywhere in Britain and I’ve enjoyed a huge range of theatre. I’ve loved the way old work has had new life breathed into it – Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw and Fiona Shaw in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage stand out – and there’s been some great new theatre, including the superb Market Boy and Coram Boy. At the same time, Hytner has managed to balance both accessibility and popularity – one thinks of the success of WarHorse and One Man Two Guv’nors. And, unlike most of the West End, the National has (a) reasonable leg room, (b) reasonably priced drinks and (c) an arty ambience.
Quite different but as compelling was Jonathan Church’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. I saw the West End transfer of this Chichester Festival Theatre production, and I was disappointed by only one aspect: the theatre was in no way sold out. Which is scandalous for a play of such quality and relevance.
But to the play. In their own time, Brecht’s plays were groundbreaking. Although gestic acting and the use of plain white light have not become mainstream in British theatre, other innovations by Brecht have become its bread and butter. Brecht employed the new technology of the period – most notably simple projections – and moved away from naturalism in favour of radicalised approaches to costume and set. There is, however, a danger that performances of his plays become mere museum pieces, trying to replicate an ‘authentic’ Brechtian experience, and that Brecht’s core purpose – of avoiding escapism and trying to make an audience think about what they are watching – becomes obscured. Church’s production never forgot this.
The play opened somewhat unconventionally: the audience entered to a Chicago bar, with jazz songs – I suspect by Kurt Weil – being played. Ostensibly about the rise from obscurity to city wide domination of a small time gangster, the play is best understood as a parable: The Resistible Rise lambasts – with few punches held back – the evils of Nazism, as embodied by Hitler, and represented by the figure of Arturo Ui. With the hallmark Hitler moustache, and the gradual move into Nazi style uniforms and armbands, it wasn’t possible to miss the point in this hard hitting, deeply affecting production.
Brecht’s pieces are famously ensemble based and this was no exception; the supporting cast was particularly strong. But Henry Goodman’s performance as Arturo was electrifying, and yet all the more unsettling: as the programme and much pre-publicity informed the audience, Goodman is Jewish. Perfectly observed – both in his mannerisms and his appearance – Goodman comically exposed Hitler’s pomposity, most notably in the scene in which Arturo hires an ageing and drunk English actor to help him improve his public speaking. Yet this was much more than light hearted comedy. All the time, the audience were being asked to stand back and think, even judge. This was Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt (‘distancing’ or ‘estrangement’ is a better translation than ‘alienation’) at its very best.
Judge, yes – but leave with no doubt about the moral and political purpose. Brecht’s play ends with a most chilling scene in which the sheer evil of Hitler is dramatically exposed. Having directed the play myself many years ago, I’ve experienced its power in performance. Suddenly, the stage is transformed into a Nazi-style Nuremberg Rally and most directors plummet for an echoing microphone with which to amplify Arturo’s voice. Even in my own school production the audience didn’t quite know to respond: it’s a violent and disturbing end to a play which began with comedy and there is no resolution (the play was written in 1941). As the actors came on for their curtain call, there was little applause. That, of course, was Brecht’s aim.
Church’s production took this one stage further, in possibly one of the most horrific ends to a play. The rally itself was powerful, but as Arturo delivered his final speech, his podium began to rise, revealing an enormous column of skulls, echoing sickening images of the Holocaust. Then, Goodman stepped out of role as Arturo, removed his moustache and arm band and took the role normally allocated to a narrator. In a conversational tone, he spoke frankly to the audience. There are, he reminded us, plenty more of his sort out there.
Did I applaud? Part of me wanted not to: emotionally, it was an abrasive experience. But I applauded and heartily – this was a remarkable demonstration of the power of live theatre to challenge our thinking and to bring home uncomfortable truths. For from time to time, we need plays that open our eyes to the truth about of our world, and from which we leave not just with a sense of enjoyment but challenged to do something about it, perhaps one of the best New Year’s resolutions for 2014. North Korea, Somalia, Russia, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic, Syria, Egypt… and they’re just the ones in the news…
Watch an interview with Henry Goodman here (and some excerpts from the production).