The title role in Bertolt Brecht’s epic satire about the rise of a Chicago gangster would be a gift for any actor, but Henry Goodman gives just as much back with an unsettling and comic performance that establishes Arturo Ui as one of the most memorable and amusing protagonists to grace the West End stage this autumn.
The Olivier Award-winning actor exercises the same power over the play as his character does over the US city. From his first appearance when – shoulders hunched, brows furrowed – he bursts on to the stage through an old Scarface poster, the remnants of which he ejects from his mouth with comic ferocity, his presence is captivating, with every line spoken accompanied by peculiar facial expressions, changeable moods and fluctuations in volume.
Central to the success of the cunning gangster, whose underhand mission to monopolise the cauliflower trade in Chicago and small town Cicero serves to reflect the rise of Adolf Hitler, is the transformation he undergoes at the hands of a highly inebriated Shakespearean actor, played in this production by an amusing Keith Baxter. While Goodman needs little guidance when it comes to the Bard’s works, boasting numerous Shakespearean credits for the RSC and National Theatre, Ui needs an idiot’s guide, with some of the production’s most entertaining moments coming during this elocution lesson, throughout which he struts between mirrors with the limb-thrashing mannerisms of the notorious German dictator and attempts to recite passages from Julius Caesar.
Emerging from the session a well-spoken and tyrannical orator, Ui manipulates his way to the top, leaving in his wake a trail of murder, deceit and – owing to the deafening gunfire piercing the auditorium – a great deal of nervous tension, emanating not only from the characters next on his hit-list but also the audience.
It is undeniably Goodman’s show, but there is strong support from Michael Feast’s menacing Roma, Joe McGann’s threatening Giri and William Gaunt’s vulnerable and deceived Dogsborough, a character who Brecht utilises to represent the man who assigned the Nazi leader Chancellor of Germany.
Simon Higlett’s set gives Jonathan Church’s well-paced production additional power, creating dark and dingy spaces in which Ui can dispose of his opposition. It even incorporates a central walkway through the stalls, which though serving as an ominous kind of mobster catwalk during the opening prologue, has the primary purpose of facilitating the characters’ dramatic entrances and even more dramatic exits.
It’s not the most universally appealing show to open in the West End this season, but Goodman’s well-measured performance as the hectic racketeer, which comes peppered with slapstick and mocking humour, is sure to draw audiences to the Duchess theatre nonetheless.